Why science advocates should embrace vouchers, school choice

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties with the blog, many redefinED readers were unable to read this post when it was originally published Friday. Thanks to those of you who notified us. Thanks to all for your patience.

It’s old news that many religious schools teach creationism and intelligent design – and that some of those schools accept students with vouchers and tax credit scholarships. But the recent New York Times piece on tax credit scholarships gave school choice critics fresh excuse to pick up and hurl. Teachers union president Randi Weingarten immediately tweeted, “Public money being funneled to creationist, anti-science religious schools.” A few days later, a left-of-center think tank in North Carolina, out to stop a legislative proposal for tax credit scholarships in that state, described the Times story as concluding that “redirected public money” is being used to “spread fundamentalist religious theology like creationism.”

I’m in the science tribe. The evolution-is-fact tribe. But I don’t share their outrage. During my own evolution on school choice, I’ve had to grapple with the fact that many private schools are at odds with what the vast majority of scientists consider good science.

I’ve come to this conclusion: Even if we disagree about creationism, we shouldn’t be so blinded that we forget all the other lessons these children receive in all the other classes they take, in all the years they attend school. We should not overlook whether these children are learning to read and write and succeed in life. I’m hoping that people who do value scientific literacy would be more likely to look at the issue with a sober analytical eye. I’m hoping they might even be willing to place scientific learning in a broader societal context, where many public school students are suffering in part because they lack the foundational learning skills that also handicap them in the arena of science.

The fact is, not many traditional public school students are doing well right now in science. It pains me to say this, because I had amazing biology, chemistry and physics teachers in my public high school. What I learned from them has benefited me personally and professionally. But the facts are informative. In 2009, 21 percent of high school seniors scored at proficient or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. Break those numbers down into subgroups, and depressing morphs into apocalyptic. Only 8 percent of low-income and Hispanic students reached that bar. Only 4 percent of black students did.

In Florida, the state I know best, only 27 percent of low-income students scored at grade level or above on the state’s high school science test in 2011. To be fair, that’s up from 19 percent in 2006 – and many talented people worked hard to move the needle even that much. But it’s nowhere near high enough or fast enough.

One reason the numbers are so sluggish is because there’s a long-running, critical shortage of highly qualified science teachers. And one reason this shortage persists is because school districts and teachers unions flat out refuse to offer differential pay in a meaningful way. I’m convinced they won’t change unless a lot more external pressure is imposed on the system, and more school choice will bring that pressure.

Obviously, there’s also a strong correlation between increased scientific literacy and improved literacy and numeracy. The better students can read and do math, the greater the likelihood they’ll go on to master the basic science that so many of us think is important for a healthy, informed citizenry. Again, traditional public schools are struggling here when it comes to low-income kids.

In 2011 – after more than a decade of heavy accountability reforms – 27 percent of low-income kids in Florida scored at grade level or above on the 10th grade reading test. I don’t think it’s bashing public schools to suggest they could use some help – and that private schools can be part of the solution. The most recent analysis of tax credit scholarship students in Florida shows they are making modestly larger gains in reading and math than their counterparts in public school, and these gains appear to be getting stronger over time.

That’s encouraging. So is the fact that many private schools – including religious schools – do have strong science programs. Schools like Bishop Moore Catholic High in Orlando, which has a state-of-the-art physics classroom worthy of being profiled by the Orlando Sentinel last fall. This school year, it enrolled 26 tax-credit students. We haven’t begun to tap the potential programs and partnerships that these schools can pull off, not just in science, but in all kinds of academic realms.

There is a more fundamental point here that may be uncomfortable for those who haven’t taken a long, hard look at school choice. Like it or not, parents have the right to raise their kids with whatever beliefs they want, and schooling is an extension of parenting. The only way to ensure all parents have a more equal access to educational options is to allow public funding, in some form, to follow the child. Some will choose schools where their children are taught that God created the Earth in days. Some will choose schools where kids ponder the Cambrian explosion.

At the end of the day, the goal behind expanding school choice is that more kids will be learning, period. That benefits all of us, including those of us who put increased science literacy high on their wish list.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.


Ron Matus

Hi Brandon. Ouch! 🙂 Something that strong probably merits a second post from me. I’ll have a response of some kind by tomorrow morning.

Ron Matus

Hi Brandon, here’s my response, which I’m posting both here and over at your blog.

Not surprisingly, Florida Citizens for Science spokesman Brandon Haught responded to my post about why science advocates should embrace school choice. Brandon has both an extraordinary knowledge of and a passion for science education, and I appreciate his feedback. But I was hoping for a more thoughtful response.

Brandon preferred to dwell on the scientific shortcomings of many religious schools, which I had readily conceded in my post. But he devoted not a word to the shortcomings in public schools, both with science instruction and general instruction, when it comes to low-income kids. Perhaps he didn’t put up much of a defense because there isn’t one.

Brandon intended to criticize the teaching of creationism and other religious beliefs in private schools when he wrote, “Don’t worry if that juicy apple has a rotten spot, folks. Just quickly swallow the mush and move on.” But his analogy could just as easily apply to public schools, because low-income students are performing tragically in science. Despite recent improvements in Florida, these same students are also still struggling far too much with basic literacy and numeracy, the obvious building blocks to improved science literacy.

I don’t see the black-and-white world Brandon does. I see lots of gray and tough tradeoffs. Science instruction in public schools is suffering in part because they have failed – some would say refused – to take basic steps to erase the critical shortage of high-quality science teachers. Meanwhile, there are a good number of religious schools that do NOT have any hang-ups about evolution; they could be enlisted to bring science instruction to a higher level if they were viewed as potential partners rather than as enemies.

As for students receiving Florida’s tax credit scholarships to attend those private schools, the evidence to date shows they are doing modestly better in reading and math than their peers in public schools and that these gains are growing stronger over time. These students, the research shows, were the ones who were struggling the most in public schools.

These promising results are at odds with Brandon’s contention that “if any subject is being taught in a private school supplants reality with ideology, then the whole barrel of apples is suspect.” Obviously, there are plenty of strongly religious people who believe in God at the same time they accept the evidence of evolution. Some of them, in fact, are strong supporters of Florida Citizens for Science. Why is it so hard, then, to believe that some low-income parents who access “vouchers” can manage the same kind of compartmentalization – that they can want their kids to be taught creationism, but, at the same time, also want their kids to excel at all the other academic pieces that are necessary to graduate and go to college and be successful in life? Why would we want to take that option away from that parent?

I’ve only been at Step Up for Students three months. But over that span, a number of parents have sent the organization thank-you letters. At least half a dozen have trickled down to my little nook. They are remarkable letters, all handwritten, and I’ve taped each one to the cabinet drawers above my computer. They’re not the most grammatically correct pieces. But they cover so much emotional ground in so few words, they’re almost poetic. There’s fear and desperation, love and humility, relief and gratitude, all spinning around twin axes: their child, the most precious thing they have in the world, and the deep-seated and maybe even universal belief that a good school will take their child to a better place.

I don’t know what those parents think of evolution. But I have no doubt they want the best education for their kid.

I agree: science education in public schools has serious failings. There are many outstanding teachers. There are some schools with spectacular science programs overall. But there are problems galore at all levels from the Department of Education all the way down to individual classrooms when it comes to science education. Every time the science FCAT results are released I post on my blog my disappointment at the sad state of affairs. That’s why I volunteer my time and effort at Florida Citizens for Science. That’s why I recently got my bachelor degree in science education/biology. I care and I want to do something about the problems.

I agree: many private schools have great science programs. When it comes to the whole voucher issue overall I have to admit that I don’t know much about the debate either for or against. That debate is also outside of the scope of Florida Citizens for Science’s mission. So, based on my lack of knowledge about the issue and based on FCS not really having a horse in that race, I’m not going to get drawn into debates about voucher programs overall. But, yes, there is no doubt in my mind that there are some wonderful private schools with wonderful science programs.

I agree: many people with strong religious beliefs support the teaching of evolution. You are right in that many folks at Florida Citizens for Science feel that way.

I disagree: teaching creationism as if it’s real science most certainly should not be supported by public tax dollars. My focus when I wrote my first response to your post and now this response is very narrow. Your argument is (correct me if I’m wrong) that if kids are getting great reading, writing and math education at a private school, then it’s OK to overlook bad science education. My counter-argument is that the science instructors in this narrow subset of creationism-promoting private schools are not just teaching science poorly but are actually teaching the very opposite of science! I also argue that if blatant creationism is being taught in biology classes in these particular schools then I guarantee that other unscientific concepts based on faith rather than science can be found in the geology, chemistry and physics classes. Not only do some of these schools teach creationism, they go a step further and actively teach that evolution is wrong. That way of teaching doesn’t just affect students’ thinking about the one subject of evolution; it gives students a grossly warped view of what science is and how it is done overall! You can have your own opinions, but in science you can’t have your own facts.

You also argue that parents have a right to choose what kind of education they want for their children. You’re right. But if a school that teaches unscientific garbage is what the parents want, then they definitely should not be using tax dollars to pay for it. Remember: I’m not talking about poor science education. That’s a separate issue. I’m talking about these specific schools teaching the very opposite of science. Your statement “…they can want their kids to be taught creationism, but, at the same time, also want their kids to excel at all the other academic pieces …” just completely blows my mind, Ron. The best reading/writing education program in the world can’t justify gross negligence in other areas of the curriculum.

A science program that teaches real science is something “necessary to graduate and go to college and be successful in life.” Students who excel at reading, writing and math due to their stellar education in these areas at a creationism-promoting school are going to be utterly shocked to discover that they need remedial science classes in college. I would even take my argument a step further and predict that some students in this type of situation may decide against science careers as a direct result of their exposure to false information fed to them in the creationism-promoting schools.

Public tax dollars absolutely should not be used to fund these specific private schools. Period.

So the way to “help” the public schools do a better job is to siphon public money out of them and into private schools, along with students whose parents could pay for private school anyway (“But now, they don’t have to!”) and leave the students who weren’t accepted or couldn’t afford private school (even with vouchers) to fend for themselves in public schools which now receive less funding?

But on the plus side, there will be less emphasis on evolution?

Ron Matus

Hi zeggman, thanks so much for reading our blog, and for offering feedback. We’ve written plenty in the past about the points you raise. Clearly, tax credit scholarships in Florida are NOT a drain on public school funding, no matter how many times that line is repeated. But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of four, credible, independent studies that all came to the same conclusion:


As for who uses the scholarships to get into private schools, the evidence is also clear. The recipients are very low-income. Eligibility to enter the program is the same as eligibility for free or reduced price-lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty. The average household income of scholarship families this year is 12 percent above poverty. The overwhelming majority of these parents could not afford private school without the assistance of the scholarships.

The evidence also shows that the students who use the scholarships are among those who struggle the most in public schools. The argument repeated by critics that the program is “cherry picking” or “skimming the cream” is simply another myth. But again, don’t take my word for it. Take the word of highly respected, independent researchers:


Jonatthan Smith

Ron, I think Brandon’s analogy of the rotten apple is to rather more subtly nuance than direct… I realize that evolution is just one aspect (albeit a major one) of science, as you say “to be weighed against the benefits of the total education package private schools provide”. My question to you would be just how much “bogus” information are you prepared to tolerate in order to justify the end result? I am fully conversant with the modus operandi of these schools and the tide of religiosity that permeates through their
infrastructure. If we overlook the evolution dilemma, in a math class, do we turn a blind eye to teaching the value of PI is 3.00 as the bible tells us, or in a linguistics /English class that all modern language came from the Tower of Babel? Or perhaps a geography class shows the Grand Canyon being formed by Noah’s Flood. Would you still consider that these small anomalies are overwhelmed by the wealth of good education these schools can provide? These are not just hypothetical observations, I have personal encountered these scenarios in many private schools in our area. They may produce good graduates for Liberty University, but fall short for any student wishing to obtain a degree at a “real” college. Accomodationism is not the image I have of you Ron and if you feel a tone of disappoint in my post you are correct. Perhaps accomodationist is a little strong, more a fence sitter would be appropriate, just don’t forget that sitting on the fence can cause discomfort to certain parts of your anatomy 

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