The number of private schools that get taxpayer funds via school vouchers or tax credit scholarships is rising rapidly, but few states keep tabs on what these schools are actually teaching. In a recent investigation for Huffington Post, education reporter Rebecca Klein shone a light on three popular textbooks used by private religious schools. While she found materials touting creationism over evolution, or teaching that homosexuality is a sin, Klein also encountered right-wing propaganda embedded throughout these K-12 curricula.
In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, AlterNet education contributor Jennifer Berkshire and co-host Jack Schneider talk to Klein about the extreme ideological teachings on offer at private religious schools, now being funded by public tax money.
The following is an edited transcript. Listen to the entire interview.
Have You Heard: You set out to try to figure out how many kids are now attending "voucher schools" — private religious schools paid for with public funds — and what those kids are being taught. What did you find out?
Rebecca Klein: I found that just over 7,000 schools around the country participated in a voucher or a tax credit program, that three quarters of the schools were religious and that about 30 percent were using a curriculum provided by either Abeka, Accelerated Christian Education or Bob Jones. In Indiana, for example, which has one of the more comprehensive voucher programs, in the last year alone, more than $16 million in taxpayer money were going to schools or scholarships that use one of these curricula. In the vast majority of states that have these programs there is zero oversight over what schools and voucher and tax credit programs are teaching. Quite literally zero.
Have You Heard: You focused on three popular curriculum providers: Abeka, Bob Jones and Accelerated Christian Education. Tell us more about them and what they represent.
Klein: I decided to look specifically at those three because I found that they were the most popular curriculum sources being used in evangelical Christian schools. Abeka is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College is a really far right evangelical school in Florida. Bob Jones University Press was developed from professors at Bob Jones University, which famously lost its tax exempt status a few decades ago because it had banned interracial dating on campus. Accelerated Christian Education or ACE is probably the most extreme provider of curriculum of the three.
Its classrooms are really radical. There's no teacher providing lesson plans or having any type of back and forth with students. Instead, ACE students sit in cubicles where they're separated from the nearest peer. All day they're expected to sift silently through workbooks. There's no active teaching going on. And if a child has a question they have either an American flag or a Christian flag that they'll raise to get the attention of the class supervisor. And the supervisors don't need to have college degrees. In fact it’s considered a detriment for supervisors to have a background in education. Instead ACE prefers that they have a background in religion.
Have You Heard: As you describe, these textbooks are filled with right-wing propaganda. Give us some examples of what you found.
Klein: It only takes a few pages to see that these textbooks are extremely pro free-market and anti-union. Unions are equated with laziness. The textbooks also take an extremely favorable view of public leaders like Ronald Reagan and extremely negative view of presidents like Bill Clinton. For example, one textbook I looked at connected some of the obstacles that Bill Clinton faced to his support for pro-choice causes. So not only are these schools pushing a specific view of the world with regards to science, they’re also pushing a very specific worldview politically. It’s clear that these schools want students to have very specific types of families and that they expect them to engage in specific kinds of political activities.
Have You Heard: You interviewed several students who’d been on the receiving end of these textbooks. What did they have to say about their experiences?
Klein: They felt like they didn't really know how to think critically. They didn't know how to question all these things that they had been taught. They were suddenly faced with contradictions, and when they were in college they were totally overwhelmed because not only had they been taught very specific things and a very specific way of looking at the world, they were taught that other views of looking at the world were evil. When they met new people or went to job interviews, they didn't really know how to explain the education they had received because it was so different from the typical experience. When they left this very specific isolated environment and entered the real world, they felt like their entire education experience had been meaningless in some ways.
Have You Heard: You also came across schools affiliated with the Church of Scientology that are now receiving public funds to instruct kids in the thinking of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Klein: So over the course of creating my database of all the schools that accept public funding through these programs I came across five schools that use curriculum provided by a group called Applied Scholastics. And if you just took a cursory glance to be Applied Scholastics website you'd see that it's basically dedicated to spreading the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard who is the founder of the Church of Scientology. So while Applied Scholastics and the Church of Scientology say that they’re not directly connected, their ideas are deeply intertwined. For example, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology told me that L. Ron Hubbard developed the study method used by Applied Scholastics in order to proselytize and spread the word of his new church and teach Scientology to other people. So if you were to go to one of these schools, it would have a uniquely Scientologist feel even though they are vehement in describing themselves as completely secular and non-religious.