From the standpoint of democratic theory, the basic problem with school choice is this: Religious belief and affiliation can be vital sites of civic learning for many Americans. In their temples, mosques, and megachurches, Americans learn to cooperate, organize, identify, and engage with social problems. These skills help them develop the kind of bonding capital that forms the basis of a democracy; from that platform, citizens can develop the bridging capital that allows them to identify with and engage civil society as a whole.

On the other hand, some religious groups preach beliefs and false information that are hostile to fellow citizens and dangerous to civil society. Any old bonding capital is not good enough. As John Dewey once observed, belonging to a gang may provide a member with opportunities for connection and growth, but toward the pursuit of destructive ends. The question of what to do with religion in school-choice programs is how, or whether, to keep the baby while ditching the bathwater.

In some ways, deregulating public education and transcending the geographic limitations of 19th-century districting laws can enhance democratic education. Giving families a stronger sense of control and making schools more culturally relevant can help make public schooling more legitimate, bringing groups of outsiders into the public fold. Stephen Macedo, a politics professor at Princeton University, has argued that such strings can even encourage religious groups to modify their beliefs and practices. Large, public school districts can be highly impersonal and bureaucratic—indeed, a popular reform in the early 21st century was to create smaller schools, including schools within schools. High-quality regulations and curriculum standards, robust oversight and accountability, and careful attention to school climate can potentially make charter schools excellent places to learn and can make them attractive alternatives to traditional public schools where such things are insufficient.

Likewise, as Kathleen Knight Abowitz, an education professor at Miami University, has argued, themed charter schools have the potential to create “counterpublics” for members of oppressed groups where they can enjoy safety and build solidarity in cases when pluralistic public schools cannot offer them adequate protections.

A photo of the cover of the book "Have a Little Faith" featuring a broken pencil arranged to look like a cross.
University of Chicago Press

Unfortunately the reverse can also be true—individuals and groups can use school choice to promote their private interests in ways that undermine the common good. Rather than changing the views of antidemocratic groups, choice programs can provide them with publicly funded platforms for spreading their ideology, while strings are either loosened, twisted, or dropped by the secular authorities who have no interest in holding them. Private religious schools can convert to public ones with little substantive change in whom they teach and to what ends. School leaders can wink at state and federal regulations, sneak religion into the curriculum, and in the most egregious (but predictable) examples, advance private agendas that clash with public values.

In the last decade, religious organizations have flocked to charter schools as a way to get public tax dollars to promote their private agendas. Sometimes, religious schools simply close at the end of the school year and reopen in the fall as public charter schools, hiring many of the same teachers and taking on most of the same students. By law, these schools should be open and accepting of students of any background and be secular in purpose and in practice. Thematic language and cultural instruction are often the secular justifications for these institutions, although cultural preservation for one particular group of students is clearly the intention. A Greek Orthodox community opens a charter school in Brooklyn with a Greek language and culture theme, with a predominantly Greek staff and clientele; a Florida Jewish school reopens as a Hebrew-theme academy that focuses on Jewish history and culture and teaches the Hebrew language, explicitly serving “Jewish communal purposes.”

A different kind of conversion, more typical of Roman Catholic parochial schools, reconstitutes a religious school that serves no particular cultural group or even religious one, but hews instead to a mission of Christian service and (usually) light evangelism. In Washington, D.C., Roman Catholic schools serving primarily African American children have recently begun converting to charters.

Are charter-school conversions good or bad for democratic education? The answer depends on questions that courts are reluctant to ask: Which groups are running the schools and to what ends? Do the schools have a democratic purpose (and not merely a “legitimate secular” one)? Culturally specific schools can potentially serve the goal of strengthening democracy if they are truly geared to the common good—welcoming students of all backgrounds and promoting a positive social vision while offering a thematic curriculum that could engage any students who choose to attend.

Such schools can also retard the development of citizens by balkanizing our population, curtailing the free exchange of diverse ideas, limiting exposure to diversity, and creating ideological bubbles. Certainly, private schools already have wide latitude in this regard. But the question of whether the state should regulate private education (or homeschooling) is a different question than whether the state should encourage certain practices by investing public dollars to promote private agendas.

Whether or not charter schools are former sectarian schools with a makeover, the lack of public accountability for charter-school providers encourages fraud. The financial cases are many and disturbing, and reports of intellectually bogus curricula are common too, particularly as Christian fundamentalists make war on history and science. RES, the Texas-based charter-school organization, is a powerful example of the perils of charter-school curriculum, and the fallacy that “the marketplace” will police itself. RES charter-school curriculum materials include a biology text that presents creationism and evolution as equally valid theories, with the latter presented as being widely questioned and full of inconsistencies and contrary evidence (which is nonsense). Other examples of a desperately right-wing agenda include teaching that the feminist movement “created an entirely new class of females who lacked male financial support and who had to turn to the state as a surrogate husband;” that Democrat John Kerry’s war medals for bravery were “suspect at best;” and that the decline in Christian values caused World War I.

These are not good-faith differences of opinion. The extreme and unsubstantiated claims advanced in these materials lie well outside the ambit of public knowledge. They are designed to obfuscate and distort deliberation rather than to inform debate. As such, they are direct attacks on public reason and democratic life. George Orwell could not have imagined it better.

It is important to note that not all religious groups make war on science. There are clear differences among faiths and within them. While it still retains miraculous elements in its rituals and doctrinal teachings, for example, the Roman Catholic Church has reconciled itself to modern science, including Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Mormon Church insists that “man is the child of God, formed in the divine image” but hedges on the nature of that formation and resolves to “leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the soul of mankind, to scientific research.” In faiths where authority is more diffuse—mainstream Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism, for example—the question of evolution invites a multitude of answers.

But on the question of diversity—that is, the acceptance of differences not only of faith, but of race, culture, sexual orientation, and others—many faiths clash with democratic values in ways that raise serious concerns about their fitness to be school providers in choice programs. The most obvious example is when groups target other groups: Muslims preaching anti-Semitism, Jews condemning Islam, Protestants and Catholics exchanging barbs with each other and everyone else. The tensions among religions are many and deep, and raise obvious questions about how safe children would be in a school run by a faith-based group that believes they are the enemy, or how much our society benefits from publicly funded schools that preach religious bigotry.

Even if we put those concerns aside, there are secular forms of inclusion that are necessary in the public sphere for which faith-based groups are ill equipped. Homophobia is one area of bigotry where many faiths find common cause, even as public schools across the country are building anti-bullying programs and safe spaces for LGBT youth. The Mormon Church urges viewers of its website to “live the Law of Chastity,” including to “avoid viewing pornography and engaging in homosexual relations,” and has played an aggressive and leading role in fighting gay marriage. As part of his effort to clean up the public image of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis famously asked, “Who am I to judge [gay priests]?” a seeming reversal of his predecessor’s statement that homosexuality is an “intrinsic moral evil.” But doctrinally speaking, Pope Benedict XVI was more honest about the church’s doctrinal stance toward homosexuality.

Despite Pope Francis’s seemingly tolerant talk, fighting gay marriage and fighting the public acceptance of homosexuality are high priorities for Catholic Church leaders in America, even if their lay members tend to hold more tolerant views. Among Jews, individual communities and congregations set their own standards, although among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, homosexuality is a scriptural sin, and homophobia can be a strong community value. Islam is a vastly diverse and diffuse religion, with no uniform set of doctrinal claims or stance toward LGBT youth, and in many cases fundamentally different cultural understandings of the meaning of queer identity and practices. Nevertheless, the Hadith and Seerah demand the death penalty for male sodomy, and homosexual behavior is not only a sin, but also a crime in most of the Islamic world. And so on.

The mission of public schools is to create engaged, smart, capable democratic citizens—and this involves engaging America’s religious diversity. An absence of religion in public education impedes these goals. So do local majorities using the school as a bully pulpit for converting others, or using vouchers and charters to balkanize mass education through choice systems. Instead, converting schools to sites of education for mutual and self understanding requires religious groups and public schools alike to encourage open, intelligent, and respectful discourse. American public schools have the necessary ingredients to offer a rich and productive democratic education that builds on diverse beliefs. It just takes a little faith.


This article has been adapted from Benjamin Justice and Colin Macleod's new book, Have a Little Faith.