Dangers and Opportunities for Choice in Government Preschool

Dangers and Opportunities for Choice in Government Preschool
August 6, 2014

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

School Choice Weekly #48

What is happening in New York City preschools is either a form of American-style religious syncretism or a theology-deadening death grip between church and state. Hard to tell which. And it could be both.

The New York Times discusses one effect of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s push to speedily expand government preschool: contracting with private preschools to handle the influx of tiny students.

Because most private schools are also religious schools, the program has led to city government dictating what parts of religious belief are acceptable to teach children during government-funded hours and which are not. In other words, government is telling people which religious beliefs they can and cannot express, and how. In Jewish yeshivas, for example, a Seder ceremony is not ok. But teaching the history of Seder is. Catholic schools have to take crucifixes off their walls in some classrooms, but not all. Small decorative Jewish stars are ok. Large ones are not.

Why this sort of control isn’t creepy to religious leaders says a lot about both them and NYC bureaucrats. Both seem to accept the premise that the state has a right to tell people how to conduct their religion, and when and where they are allowed to express it, as long as taxpayer money is involved somewhere. And, today, taxpayer money always seems to be involved everywhere.

This sort of entanglement between church and state is not only dangerous to both, it doesn’t make any sense. As Cathy Rolland, director of early childhood engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism told the Times, “You just can’t separate out the religious piece. We don’t teach Judaism; we weave Judaism into our work.” Religion is not bits and pieces of cultural artifacts and distended practices. The world’s major religions are holistic approaches to the world, which are meant to inform a person’s thoughts and deeds in every respect. It is impossible to chop them up into “culture and history” and “religious practice.” The two are one, just as human beings are both body and soul, unified. And government has no place telling people what to believe and how that means they should conduct themselves, especially in something so intimate and personal as passing that heritage on to one’s children.

Despite this dangerous silliness, a small opportunity for good exists within preschool programs like de Blasio’s and its counterparts, which are growing in cities and states across the nation. Because preschool historically has not been government-provided, parents are used to the freedom to choose within the existing network of private options for early childhood care. Many government preschool programs also contract with private providers, preserving some aspects of this network. There’s an opportunity to explain to the parents of the one-third of young children in preschool that K-12 also can work like that--where families can choose from a variety of providers that serve their interests and needs.

This all depends, of course, on whether government co-opts such providers or relinquishes to them the power to preserve what makes them unique. Thus it is clearly far better to use private money, perhaps facilitated through tax credits, for private institutions rather than direct government contracts that carry with them the power to pick winners and losers among the world’s myriad religious teachings.

SOURCE: The New York Times


School Choice Roundup

Common Core Watch

  • ARIZONA: State Superintendent John Huppenthal seems to have reversed himself on Common Core this week. Although he previously led efforts to keep the mandates in Arizona, in a recent radio interview he said they push alarmist global warming and denigrate the Founding Fathers, and after the election he wants a full review.

Education Today

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Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)