Monday, May 11, 2009

BIPPS has Faith in School Choice - and Creationism

This week the Bluegrass Institute came out in favor of both creationism and Kentucky's school reform - and then compared the two in terms of faith.
BIPPS Communications Director Jim Waters undertook the curious task of rationally comparing the relative amounts of faith required to believe in creationism versus believing in school reform in Kentucky. Waters writes,
You might be surprised to know it takes even more faith for a creationist like me to expect the current bureaucracy to reform Kentucky’s public-education system than to believe the earth, universe, humankind and all life forms happened by accident.

And it takes nearly as much faith to believe Kentucky’s schools will improve without giving parents power where it counts — the right to determine which school gets their children to educate and tax dollars to operate.
To Waters, creationism makes good sense.

Having a localized organizational system of school districts does not.
I wouldn't normally comment on someone's faith - but he brought it up.

I must confess, this position surprised me. I have always taken folks at their word when they described their own political inclinations. Foolishly naive, perhaps. But I had it "on good authority" that BIPPS was a "libertarian think tank." In Waters hands, BIPPS is cast as a faith-based neo-con political effort that would eliminate school distirct organization and move public money into private hands - all while promoting a religious agenda and removing control from local officials. I was immediately suspicious of Water's motives - but perhaps there is another explanation.

Waters finds it "outrageous" that local elected officials are being empowered by state law to decide if and where school attendance boundaries should be allowed to exist - in favor of his proposal that would impose a free-for-all on every local community in Kentucky.
"Parents may send their children to the public school of their choice."
Forget school districts. Forget school board authority. Parents can just send their kids wherever they want.

This dangerous and highly inefficient proposal may sound good to the selfish, politically connected and well-heeled, but consider for a moment how that plan would utterly fail to work in real life.

Imagine a young couple selecting their new home right around the corner from the best school in their community. They have children who grow to school age only to be locked out of their neighborhood school because folks from the next county over have filled the school to capacity. I think I know how those parents would feel. Tough luck, Junior. Where should we move now? Such scenarios would happen repeatedly across the state.

One can only imagine the hostility school officials would face from angry displaced local taxpayers. But Waters seems not to care. They're merely "bureaucrats" after all. Maybe that's why BIPPS also likes the idea of guns on campus. Perhaps such disputes could be settled according to the code of the west.

But we should all appreciate Waters for clarifying where BIPPS stands on issues related to religion and public schools. For all of BIPPS's posturing as small-government libertarians, one may have drawn a wrong conclusion about the neo-con aspirations of the Bluegrass Institute if it weren't for Water's clarifications.

Thankfully Waters offered his readers an alternative way to think about his motives in the form of Hanlan’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”


Eric Schansberg said...

In the excerpts quoted from Waters, he seems to be drawing an analogy about comparative levels of faith-- not talking about what should be taught in every school.

In any case, what's the alternative to being a "creationist"? If you don't believe in a Creator God, then you're left with believing that the development of life, the origins of life, and the origins of all-- comes from ???.

Finally, it's interesting that Obama is conflicted on the matter of school choice. He doesn't support it for elementary and secondary schools. But he supports more aid to students while diminishing institutional aid for colleges. Which one is it? Should assistance go to institutions or to individuals?

Richard Day said...


Admittedly, I have inferred some things about Water's creationism" beyond his specific comments in this piece. If he is a creationist only in the broadest sense of believing in a creator God, then I hope he will clarify. That view would stand him in good stead with most Christians, Jews and Muslims.

On the other hand, if Water's creationism is more akin to the recent expression found in Kentucky (i.e. Ken Ham; Creation Museum; anti-evolutionist; and somewhat anti-science; social conservative) as I have surmised, then the fundamentalist and evangelical tendencies would be a real concern on many levels and one could count on it impacting what is taught in the schools - if Waters had his way.

I have no antipathy to the former notion and find myself accepting of a creator. I am more persuaded along the lines of Einstein - that the universe is an awesome place and I lack the capacity to understand it - but I lack his sense of determinism.

Einstein believed in a God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists. That makes sense to me. But that's a far cry from believing in creationism as a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis - a view inconsistent with the vast majority of religious people around the globe.

As for Obama, we'll see where all this goes. So far he seems to be splitting the baby on most issues; no problem for a moderate like me.

And the question of whether the proper function of government is to assist individuals or institutions is a false choice, right? Sometimes it should do neither and sometimes it should do both. The government should not do those things people can just as easily do for themselves. But the GI Bill, for example, assisted both individuals and institutions.

Thanks for the comment.

Eric Schansberg said...

The type of creationist to which you refer is relatively uncommon and viewed in derisive terms. It's not cool to assume that Waters holds that view without more evidence.

Independent of whether "institutions vs. individuals" is a false choice, it's the one we were given as the reason for the one decision. Why wouldn't Obama apply the same matrix here? The most likely answer: politics. Appeasing teachers unions and handing out grants to students is a nice combo.

The G.I. Bill assisted individuals directly-- and institutions indirectly. By the current/common rhetoric against other educational vouchers, the G.I. Bill must be viewed as anathema by the same people.

Richard Day said...

Relatively uncommon? I'm not sure Ken Ham would agree. But perhaps you are correct. I may be reacting to what I fear may be true, based on some very conservative impressions of his commentary over time.

Given the backlash against the kind of fundamentalist creationism at issue, I can't imagine Waters stating flatly that he is a creationist if he didn't mean it literally.

I don't see the evidence Obama has appeased the unions it the usual sense. His support for charters and differentiated pay are not popular with the majority of union folks. But when one has billions to distribute, hearts and minds will follow. I imagine an Obama with fewer resources to distribute would have received a much different reception.

I mentioned the GI Bill because it is a positive example of government benefiting both individuals and institutions in pursuit of a higher goal - the overall need of the nation for an educated workforce.

Eric Schansberg said...

I agree that it is strange that Waters would embrace that label-- without explanation-- given how the label has been narrowed and caricatured. Knowing Jim a bit, I'd be surprised if he is a young-earth creationist.

Obama has been interesting on schools. The DC voucher opposition-- very nasty business-- has received the most press. But to your point, he's apparently willing to do some stuff with charter schools, talk about merit pay, and try to purchase more votes by increasing spending and borrowing. His heart and head must tell him that the status quo is bankrupt. He has the op to do some remarkable things-- a la Nixon going to China. So far, it looks more like shuffling chairs on the Titanic.

If one likes the G.I. Bill, how can one oppose educational vouchers for lower-income students?

Richard Day said...

I am much less open to vouchers on constitutional grounds. As you may know, in Poindexter vs. Louisiana, the Court ruled that The United States Constitution does not permit the state to perform acts indirectly which it is forbidden to do directly.

I am persuaded that a separation between church and state is necessary to preserve freedom of thought.

It is of absolutely no help to my argument that the history of schooling in America is riddled with examples of the state maintaining schools for Protestants that were openly and unconstitutionally (although not ruled so) hostile toward Catholics.

I don't see the church/state problem with the GI Bill. I have always viewed it as something akin to a fringe benefit. It provided college or vocational education as well as one year of unemployment compensation for returning World War II veterans who had put their lives at risk for our country. It also provided loans for returning veterans to buy homes and start businesses. I've got no problem with that.

Eric Schansberg said...

The Supreme Court is fine with vouchers.

By analogy, the GI Bill should have been restricted-- at least, not allowed to use it at religious schools, or more likely, to force them to attend the school nearest to their house.

Richard Day said...

Fine with vouchers?

I'll need a citation on that one.

Eric Schansberg said...

I think it was called "Zelman v. Simons-Harris"-- Cleveland's program in 2002. I think there was another where they refused to hear a case to consider overturning another program.

Where does the GI Bill analogy fail?

Richard Day said...

Zelman...yes, you are correct, and I cited the US Consitiution rather than the state. My bad.

The U.S. Supreme Court (in what critics called a blow to the establishment clause) ruled that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the U.S. Constitution, but that voucher systems also must pass muster under state constitutions.

It set a Private Choice Test for determining if a voucher program could be constitutional:

* the program must have a valid secular purpose,
* aid must go to parents and not to the schools,
* a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,
* the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and
* there must be adequate nonreligious options.

I seriously doubt that Kentucky could pass that test.

Ninety percent of Kentucky's certified, nonpublic schools have religious affiliations, and among the few private schools without a religious affiliation, 18 of the 22 are located in Louisville, Lexington, and Fort Knox, leaving just 4 to serve the rest of the state.

A voucher program in Kentucky would effectively subsidize tuition at religious schools.

Section 189 of the Kentucky Constitution presents a major barrier:

"No portion of any fund or tax now existing, or that may hereafter be raised or levied for educational purposes, shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of, any church, sectarian or denominational school."

The GI Bill analogy simply doesn't matter. But Zelman would suggest that it fails because unlike school vouchers in Kentucky, the GI Bill was very broad, had a clear secular purpose, presented lots of nonreligious options and primarily benefitted the returning soldier.

Eric Schansberg said...

It's been a few days and a few posts since my last comment. Are we done? Feel free to drop me a line off-line at

Richard Day said...

Yep...been busy lately. I'll catch you on the next issue.