Once upon a time there was small, urban, faith-based school that proudly served children in the surrounding community. When legislation was passed that allowed this school to sign up for the choice program, the school board and school leaders were excited to do so. Their tuition for the school was already low and they often found people in the church and community to donate money to cover the costs of families that could not attend otherwise. Yet, the choice program allowed new students to attend the school by leveraging a portion of the public tax dollars allocated for that child’s education. The money, at least part of it, followed the student.
Every day the teachers and administrators in this school worked hard, and for less of what their public school counterparts got paid, to provide the best possible education for the students and families who opted for this school. They took their job seriously and worked to make sure that students were prepared for life in this 21st-century world. Even with the choice dollars, their budget was small compared to the closest public school, and they were the first to admit that they didn’t have all of the special education services available through some of the public schools. Yet, there was a way for the students in this faith-based school to obtain critical services through the public school system while still attending this faith-based school. Over time, the school became increasingly dependent upon this extra student-associated government funding for the school to remain viable.
Students and parents were pleased with the education. It equipped students with the key skills identified by the state standards. The student test scores were comparable to those in the public schools, even better in some areas, and the school enjoyed the freedom to integrate their faith convictions into the learning experience while welcoming students of all backgrounds.
In the Capitol
Hundreds of miles away in the state capitol, several politicians were conspiring to change things. They had a number of personal beliefs and convictions, targeted social ideas that they valued and wanted to mandate for any schools that received government funding. This applied to the choice schools as well. They saw this as an opportunity to either force faith-based schools to set aside some of their religious convictions in the school, or to stop accepting government funding. Either close or let the government dicate part of the religious messages in the school.
Advocates for the school saw things differently. They recognized the church and state distinctions, but also saw this as a deliberate effort for the government to control and dictate how a faith-based school should function, what it should teach, and what religious and ethical values they should infuse into their schools.
In other words, both sides saw this as a church/state infringement. One wanted the freedom to operate as a faith-based school. The other wanted to push forward a social and belief system agenda by demanding that faith-based schools depending upon government funding either compromise, close, or find a new funding stream.
The matter of government funding caught many people’s interest. Some noted that there are countless high-impact faith-based organizations in the country that benefited from government funding while also providing measurable positive services in the community including mental health services, free health clinics, after school education programs, workforce development, havens for victims of abuse, homeless shelters, and so much more. If this new philosophy were applied consistently, it would mean the closing of so many of these programs…or it would mean that the government was now telling these faith-based institutions what they could teach and how their beliefs could or could not be practiced.
Of course, there was also the dilemma of determining what constituted a religious belief. There are many ethical and social issues, for example, that some argued were motivated by religion, but others would contest that. How to delineate in such matters is no easy task, and this new line of thinking risked, at least in the eyes of some, banishing the role of people and organizations to live out their religious convictions in the public square, as had been supported and defended in this country for centuries.
Because of all of this, a group of families, teachers, students and school administrators from this faith-based school requested a meeting with the key proponents of the bill that would restrict the school’s access to funds. Everyone gathered on a Thursday evening for what turned into a rich and dynamic conversation. The media was not present, which seemed to free to proponents of the bill to be more candid than they might have been otherwise.
All parties voiced their values and concerns. At least one proponent of the bill explicitly stated her firm disagreement with the religious position of the school on several major issues, including the few in this bill. Others explained that they had issues with government funding of private and faith-based schools, seeing that as detracting from the public schools that they supported.
Parents and others at the school explained their viewpoint, that they saw the public school as restricting their right to practice their religion while getting a good education, and that they saw the public schools as teaching values and ideals that fit into the larger realm of religion, as they understood it. In addition, these parents explained that they paid many tax dollars that the government then used to fund services and the like that conflicted directly with their religious convictions, ethics, and personal values. They struggled to understand why tax dollars could not support the education of a child attending this faith-based school, but they were used to support other efforts that clashed with core religious beliefs. Graduates of the school were well prepared to be positive and contributing citizens. As such, the school, in addition to being faith-based, was indeed providing a public good.
Graduates of the school were well prepared to be positive and contributing citizens. As such, the school, in addition to being faith-based, was indeed providing a public good. Still others wondered why we could not have a system like in Australia where they found a balance, and government funding supported any schools that provided the primary service of a quality education that met a set of generally agreed upon standards while also incorporating their distinct faith-based elements.
Many other such positions from different sides were shared during this evening. Tension and contention arose in the room at times, but they agreed to push through that, genuinely seeking to listen to one another, to share their candid thoughts and convictions, and to learn from diverse and conflicting viewpoints. They didn’t try to demonize each other, but they also didn’t minimize or try to ignore real and significant differences. All sides worked hard to avoid framing their ideas and convictions in provocative and inflammatory terms.
Almost everyone present saw the evening as a worthwhile conversation. In fact, it was so worthwhile to many, that they decided to set up two more meetings to continue the talk. They invited more voices. They debated. They listened. The learned from one another. Some adjust their viewpoints a bit, but when it came to core beliefs and convictions, most people simply clarified and affirmed what they believed coming into the meetings. What changed, however, was a sense that the group, and others in society, could genuinely find ways to grapple with and work together on finding solutions to many, but not necessarily all, of the key factors. This did not happen quickly. It involved hard work. It involved a commitment to care, candor, and bearing with one another in a new way. For those involved, many described as wonderfully apolitical, at least in the way they experienced politics in the capitol and elsewhere.
In the end, the proponents of the original bill decided to delay on moving it forward. Some still believed strongly in it, but they understood, in a more intimate way, the complex and important factors involved. In the end, a new group emerged, one that drew this diverse group of people together, struggling together, in an ongoing way. They set aside the simplistic mindset of winning and wielding power, and opted for something messier, something more time-consuming, and something largely more democratic.