May 2001 People & Events

Senate Compromise On Education Bill May Exclude School Vouchers

The U.S. Senate is nearing a compromise over President George W. Bush's education package that will probably exclude a controversial voucher provision sought by the president and his congressional allies.

The senators disagreed about the best way to help students in public schools deemed to be "failing." The Bush administration proposed giving those students $1,500 vouchers to use at any other public, private or religious school. Opponents balked, saying the scheme violates the Constitution and undercuts public schools.

A tentative compromise reached last month leaves out vouchers and permits the use of tax money for public school choice only. It would also allow tax funds to be spent on tutoring programs run by community groups, including religious institutions.

Although Religious Right activists and their friends in the Senate backed the voucher proposal, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the provision was so controversial it could have derailed the entire education package.

Democrats said the deal would not be finalized until Bush and the Republicans committed to spending more funds on low-income students. "We have made very substantial progress," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. "What is absolutely essential is having the kind of funding levels to make sure children who need extra help get it."

Some senators, however, have not given up on the voucher idea. Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said a voucher program could be offered as an amendment when the bill is debated on the Senate floor. "There will be a lot of amendments," he vowed. Democrats say they have the votes to defeat such a move.

Hutchinson may also have behind-the-scenes help from the White House. According to The Washington Times, Bush reaffirmed his support for vouchers April 12. School choice, he said, "is an idea that I remain strongly committed to."

The president's comments came during a White House meeting with voucher boosters, including some African-American parents who participate in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

The House version of the education bill, H.R. 1, contains several provisions that were added at the behest of the Religious Right. In addition to a voucher component, it features language encouraging "voluntary prayer" in public schools, a measure mandating federal grants to religious groups for after-school programs and funding for "school choice" demonstration projects.

In other news about vouchers:

Florida legislators are pushing to expand the state's experimental school voucher program. Their proposal is to offer vouchers worth $3,000 to any student in a school deemed "overcrowded," which is defined as a school having 20 percent or more students than it was designed to accommodate.

The Florida House of Representative's Education Innovation Committee approved the bill 11-5 in late February, and the full House later voted 63-54 for the measure. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but a vote had not been scheduled as Church & State went to press.

Republican legislators in New Mexico have failed to add a voucher provision to an education reform bill. The plan, backed by Gov. Gary Johnson (R), would have established a five-year experimental voucher program aimed at low-income students. It was voted down by a 23-18 party-line vote, reported the Albuquerque Journal.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum has called for expanding Milwaukee's voucher program by letting children continue to take part even if their parents' incomes increase and exceed the current cap. The existing program is aimed at low-income students, but McCallum says the expansion is needed in case family incomes fluctuate. He has also proposed adding nearly $20 million to the program's budget, increasing it from $49 million to $68 million.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reported that questions about academic performance continue to plague private schools taking part in the Milwaukee plan. While many participating parents say they are satisfied with the program, The Post noted that there is no way to determine if their children are doing any better academically. Voucher students are not required to take the standardized tests that their public school counterparts must take.

The Milwaukee program also imposes very few regulations on participating private schools. Last summer, The Post reported, a school called the Sensas-Utcha Institute of Holistic Learning enrolled 135 children and was prepared to receive voucher aid. School officials said the children would soak up knowledge from books simply by resting their hands on them. The Institute's director has a Ph.D. that he purchased over the Internet. Ultimately, the school did not open, but only because it could not find a suitable building.

Public school parents in New York City have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to turn five schools over to a private company. The plan, which called for giving control of the public institutions to Edison Schools, was heavily backed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. On April 2, however, the voters in the targeted districts went to the polls and defeated the measure handily with 80 percent casting ballots against the proposal.

Edison executives had hired the Rev. Floyd Flake, an influential black clergyman and former member of Congress, to serve as head of the company's charter school division and press for a yes vote. Flake blamed the defeat on "a cloud of misinformation."

A Wisconsin Supreme Court judge who voted to uphold vouchers in that state has been fined $10,000 for a series of irregularities during his 1997 campaign. Wisconsin's Elections Board announced March 5 that Justice Jon Wilcox had agreed to pay a $10,000 fine, although he has admitted no wrongdoing. The board also announced that it would accept a record $60,000 settlement in the case, which accused Wilcox's campaign of various abuses of election law.

The board said Wilcox illegally coordinated his campaign with Wisconsin Citizens for Voter Participation, a front organization for well-heeled supporters of vouchers. The group poured $200,000 into a last-minute effort to promote Wilcox's candidacy through a campaign that attacked his opponent, Milwaukee attorney Walt Kelly.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is moving ahead with a new plan to strengthen the Catholic identity of parochial schools, even as the church hierarchy presses for various forms of government aid.

Church leaders announced in March that henceforth all teachers in church elementary schools will be required to receive a certificate in catechism. Teachers in grades 6 through 8 will be required to hold a youth ministry certificate, and all non-Catholic teachers in the schools will be required to take courses in basic Catholic doctrine.

"First and foremost, we really are rooted in the richness of our Catholic tradition," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Baltimore archdiocese. "That's the sum and substance of what we are. Catechesis should permeate all elements of school life."

Even as they boost the sectarian flavor of their schools, the church hierarchy continues to press for assistance from Maryland taxpayers. While voucher bills have not been successful in the state, church lobbyists did win an $8 million appropriate for textbook aid last year. This year, the amount of the aid was cut back to $5 million.

Theodore J. "Ted" Forstmann, a wealthy businessman, has launched a new front group to push for school vouchers. The organization, Parents In Charge, held an inaugural press conference in Washington, D.C., April 3. Forstmann pledged to underwrite a million-dollar campaign lasting six months to place pro-voucher television and print ads.

The organization, despite its name, is not a coalition of parents. Rather, it is a new vehicle for Forstmann, founder of the Children's Scholarship Fund. Forstmann created the Fund along with Wal-Mart's John Walton to privately subsidize tuition in selected cities. Critics say the pair hope to create a demand for vouchers that will lead to publicly funded programs.

Forstmann, who called the public education system an "un-American" monopoly during the press conference, said his new group will not be political but will run its activities "like a national political campaign without a candidate." He has also enlisted former Education Secretary William Bennett and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, to back the crusade.

Although Forstmann has recruited a few minority leaders to endorse the drive (including Martin Luther King III), opponents note that the most prominent civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, opposes vouchers. African-American voters in California and Michigan overwhelmingly rejected vouchers during referenda last November.

Anti-Evolution Bill Fails In Close Vote In Arkansas House

A bill that would have effectively banned the teaching of evolution fell just six votes short of passage March 23 in the Arkansas House.

The measure, couched as a ban on "errors," would have denied state and local funds to any public school district, zoo or museum that presented textbook material about evolution, radio-carbon dating or fossils. Any existing books that contain this information would have to be marked "false evidence" or "theory" in the margins.

The House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs approved the measure March 21, with only one dissent. During a contentious hearing, Rep. Denny Altes (R-Ft. Smith) responded to a charge that the bill was designed to promote religion by exclaiming, "Do you believe you were descended from a monkey? If we teach kids that they were descended from monkeys, don't you think they'll act like monkeys?"

(The theory of evolution does not teach that humans descended from apes, but rather that apes and humans share a common ancestor.)

The House tally was 45-36 in favor of the measure, with 12 legislators voting "present." Although the bill received a simple majority, 51 votes are required to pass most forms of legislation in the House. During the floor debate, supporters insisted that the proposal was merely designed to keep errors out of textbooks, but opponents countered that it was an effort to bring creationism in through the back door.

"Slanting something toward creationism when the bill does not address that I don't think is fair," said Rep. Jim Holt (R-Springdale), the measure's sponsor. "What this bill does is, it makes textbook publishers accountable for the fraudulent, misleading information they're putting...in textbooks."

Rep. Jay Bradford (D-White Hall), noting that previous efforts to introduce creationism into public schools have been struck down by the courts "countless times," remarked, "This steps right into the same trap."

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a religiously motivated Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1987, the justices struck down a Louisiana law that required equal treatment between evolution and creationism in public schools. A similar Arkansas statute was declared unconstitutional by a lower federal court in 1982.

After the Arkansas bill failed, Northwest Arkansas Times columnist Don Michael reported that chief sponsor Holt relied on self-styled "expert" Kent Hovind to help draft the measure. Hovind, who runs a "creation science" group in Pensacola, Fla., reportedly has no credentials in science but does have graduate degrees in "Christian education" from Patriot University, an institution Michael described as a place that "more resembles a split-level home than a place of higher learning." Hovind's main claim to fame is that he wrote several anti-evolution comic books for notorious fundamentalist tract publisher Jack Chick.

Hovind also runs a website called www.drdino.com, which Michael visited. The columnist noted that the site argues that dinosaurs may still be alive today and even claims to have photos, although as Michael mentioned, "Most of these prehistoric creatures resemble a cross between Pete's Dragon and a sock puppet, a testament to the science-fiction B-films of yesteryear."

Hovind's website also contains information on why the income tax is illegal and why no one should have a social security number. It speculates that the legendary "bigfoot" creature allegedly sighted in the Pacific Northwest might be a cursed human "similar to what happened to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:33," although Hovind admits "those theories are unverified so far."

As Church & State went to press, a move was under way in the Arkansas legislature to resurrect the anti-evolution bill.

Dr. Laura Attacks Public Schools For 'Sick Indoctrination'

Controversial radio broadcaster Dr. Laura Schlessinger blasted public schools in March, calling them centers for "sick indoctrination" and the "brainwashing" of children.

Schlessinger's outburst came after a caller expressed frustration about attempts to address traffic safety issues at her child's public school. The acerbic Schlessinger, who regularly heaps abuse upon her callers, interrupted to say, "You're doing the right thing, but see, I think most people should take their kids out of public school anyway because there's all kinds of sick indoctrination going on there, and there's no way to fight it."

Continued Schlessinger, "I get horrendous letters every day with stupidity like this, with harassment situations real harassment situations, with stupid kinds of programs that are brainwashing kids to, for social, different social programs, and what have you. I mean, it has ceased being what it was supposed to be in the beginning, and the irrationality, like you expressed to me, it's part of the mail I get every day."

She concluded her March 13 comments, "So, the best thing I can do is rant and rave like I am right now. Tell people to take your kids out of public schools. They're not well run; you don't really have control. I don't even know why they call them public.... That's why I urge people to get the heck out of public schools."

Schlessinger is an Orthodox Jew much loved by the Religious Right for her hard-line right-wing views and intemperate moralizing. Although her radio show remains popular, her attempt to expand into television flopped after the syndicated "Dr. Laura" program was cancelled in March by its producer, Paramount Pictures Television Group.

When the TV show was unveiled last fall, Schlessinger came under fire from gay groups for her intolerant rhetoric. She has called gay people a "biological error" and "deviants," and although she finally issued an apology, a boycott against the show's advertisers was launched.

Schlessinger remains popular, however, among the Religious Right. Recently the National Religious Broadcasters chose her as the featured guest speaker for the NRB's annual "media breakfast" at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. (The NRB is an umbrella group of religious broadcasters such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.)

Last year, the NRB presented Schlessinger with its "Chairman's Award," citing her "strong stand for the role of religion, the Ten Commandments and encouraging millions of Americans to do the right thing."

In other news about the Religious Right:

Houston area politico Dr. Steven F. Hotze may still face drunk driving charges. Hotze, a Religious Right activist who has great influence over state and local politics in Texas, was arrested last October after a police officer spotted his car weaving across the center line of a road.

According to the Houston Press, Officer J.S. Miller said Hotze's vehicle was weaving so badly it nearly struck his patrol car. Another officer, M.R. Adams, reported that Hotze's eyes were bloodshot and glassy and his speech slurred. Hotze refused to take a breathalyzer test but reportedly said, "I was out having a smoke and drinking some vodka tonics. I would like to call my attorney Rusty Hardin."

Charges against Hotze were dropped when Adams, in an unrelated case, was accused of working in collusion with a tow truck driver to falsify towing slips. But a grand jury refused to indict Adams, clearing the way for him to be a witness against Hotze. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal received support from Hotze during his race but said that would not affect his decision on whether to refile charges.

Meanwhile, Hotze remains a leader among the Religious Right. A Christian talk radio station, KSEV-AM in Tomball, Texas, has given him his own show.

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams has criticized the Christian Coalition in the wake of a lawsuit filed by black employees who claim they have been mistreated at the group's Washington office. In his syndicated column, Williams accused the group of ignoring the concerns of minorities.

"While the Christian Right continues to pump its collective fist over abortion and same-sex marriage, it has been notably silent on issues relating to race," wrote Williams, who is African American. "You don't see the Christian Coalition handing out pamphlets and organizing protests over racial profiling or racial disparities in legal sentencing. Yet, race is a moral issue that addresses those very social structures that keep us huddled together as a community. Until the Christian Right makes an appeal to black Americans and other minorities who share its value system, it will continue to be perceived as an insular group of rural folk who are out of touch with the moral concerns of modern America."

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon is touring all 50 states under the auspices of the Unification Church's Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Despite Moon's controversial theological beliefs he asserts that he is the new messiah sent to complete the failed mission of Jesus Christ the Korean evangelist continues to win influence in political circles. His recent appearance in Albuquerque drew support from a Republican state senator and former Gov. David Cargo.

Moon also has ties to TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. A recent letter inviting people to the state events lists Billy McCormack as a member of the "Invitational Committee." McCormack, who reportedly first urged Robertson to start the Coalition, is identified on the letterhead as a member of the Christian Coalition's Founding Board.

Fla. Legislators Sneak 'Faith-Based' Aid Into State Budget Bill

Frustrated by their inability to pass legislation giving tax aid to churches to provide social services, Florida's Republican leadership did an end run around the legislative process and smuggled the measure into an omnibus budget bill.

The "faith-based" proposal has been introduced before by Rep. Johnnie Byrd (R-Plant City) but has failed to pass as freestanding legislation. It would require state agencies to come up with plans for distributing tax aid to religious groups for programs such as drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment, child care and after-school care.

Although strongly backed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the plan has been bogged down over concerns about accountability. After the latest version passed the House but stalled in the Senate, Byrd and other GOP leaders inserted it directly into the state's $53.3 billion budget.

Under the procedure, known as a "proviso," the measure does not face committee hearings or debate. Some leaders of the GOP, which holds a majority in both houses of the legislature, defended the move.

"This issue is being debated nationally, it's on the Sunday talk shows, and we've debated it in the House for years," House Speaker Tom Feeney (R-Oviedo) told The Tampa Tribune. "This is nothing new. The question is, do you discriminate against faith-based groups or treat them the same as any other organization?"

But critics said the question was more complex than that, noting that the measure could open the door to taxpayer-funded proselytism or funding of groups that engage in religious discrimination.

Daniel Ruth, a columnist for the Tribune, criticized the GOP leadership for circumventing the legislative process. "Excuse me, but where is it written that a faith-based group is entitled to unscrutinzed public funds simply on the basis of religious orientation? What's this? The Immaculate Tax Exemption?," he wrote in an April 4 column. "If an elected official attempted to secretly finagle a bill through the Legislature that benefited private industry to the tune of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the public outrage would be deafening. But slap a halo around the same measure and Byrd expects everyone to genuflect and vote yea."

In other news about "charitable choice":

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has ordered the Child Welfare Agency to give a contract to a fundamentalist-oriented home for troubled youngsters called The Lord's Ranch, despite the organization's reluctance to accept government oversight in the past.

Staffers at The Lord's Ranch, based in Warm Springs, blocked state inspectors from interviewing children about suspected abuse in 1994, reported the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. That same day, the Randolph County sheriff's office reported that Ted Suhl, director of the ranch, had purchased two AR-15 assault rifles, two shotguns and several handguns. (Suhl claims he bought just one handgun and did not keep it at the ranch.)

A 1996 report by state officials noted further compliance problems at the ranch. Nevertheless, Huckabee appointed Suhl to the Child Welfare Agency Licensing Board and approved the facility for $140,490 in state funds, to be used for psychological treatment of children.

Suhl and other officials at the Lord's Ranch donated $8,650 to Huckabee's reelection campaigns between December 1996 and December 2000, but he told the Democrat-Gazette the contributions had nothing to do with governor's support for the children's home.

An Atlanta church has sparked controversy over its policy of beating children during services and forcing girls as young as 14 to get married. Members of the House of Prayer say their methods are based on the Bible, but state authorities disagree and have removed 41 children of church members from their homes. State officials say the beatings, which left bruises, open sores and welts on some children, are a form of abuse.

Critics of "charitable choice" assert that once tax aid is extended to religious groups, controversial churches like the House of Prayer could insist on government funding.

Bush Dedicates Papal Museum in Washington, Meets With Cardinals

Continuing an aggressive outreach to the Roman Catholic hierarchy, President George W. Bush joined seven cardinals at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the new Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. March 22.

During his visit to the $65-million Center, Bush praised John Paul for his anti-abortion views and exalted what he called the "culture of life." Remarked Bush, "We must defend in love the innocent child waiting to be born."

The evening before the dedication, Bush hosted a delegation of cardinals, bishops and church lay leaders at the White House. According to the National Catholic Register, Bush, a United Methodist, told the gathering, "The best way to honor Pope John Paul II, truly one of the great men, is to take his teaching seriously; is to listen to his words and put his words and teachings into action here in America. This is a challenge we must accept."

Deal Hudson, a Bush advisor who edits the right-wing Catholic magazine Crisis, said the president's strategy is part of a deliberate attempt to woo Catholics and acknowledged the political intent. "The strategy is to reach out to Catholics whose faith makes a difference to them in the way they vote. The president and his advisors understand the difference," he said.

Bush narrowly lost the overall Catholic vote to Democrat Al Gore last November, but among Catholics who attend mass regularly he took 57 percent of the vote. Many influential bishops and other members of the Catholic hierarchy issued strong statements before the election that were tantamount to endorsements of Bush. (See "The Bishops' Biased Blessing," December 2000 Church & State.)

The bishops' political work has been richly repaid. Since moving into the White House, Bush has issued an executive order limiting funding of overseas groups that perform abortions, moved to cut back birth control coverage for government employees, worked to increase funding of "faith-based" social services, discussed school voucher strategy with church leaders and named former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Church leaders raised the $65 million to build the new papal center from private sources. They hope to raise its estimated $8 million annual operating budget from admissions fees and the Center's two gift shops.

The Rev. G. Michael Bugarin, the Center's director, acknowledged that some Catholics complained that $65 million could have been better spent helping the poor. But he told The Washington Post, "You can give me $65 million to spend on the poor, and I will not make a major dent in the world. "Over time...I'm confident that we will make a dent in the world by increasing the faith life of the people who come here."

Tucson Can Refuse To Sponsor Prayer Day, Appeals Court Rules

The city of Tucson, Ariz., obeyed the Constitution when it denied city equipment and other support services to a Christian group for a National Day of Prayer rally, a federal appeals court has held.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled March 30 that city officials are not required to help a religious group put on an event at a city park. The city had assisted some non-religious groups to hold functions at Reid Park but refused to extend the same subsidy to a religious group, saying it would violate the separation of church and state.

Backed by TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the evangelical Christian group, called the National Day of Prayer Committee, sued the city, demanding reimbursement for $340 it spent on maintenance, audio equipment and other services.

A three-judge appellate panel ruled 2-1 last year that the city had to make the reimbursement. But the entire 9th Circuit Court, sitting en banc, ruled 8-3 to reverse that opinion. The court majority held that the city had a legitimate desire to avoid subsidizing religious groups with tax money.

"The federal Constitution provides all the defense Tucson needed in this lawsuit," Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the majority. The city, she said, could not fund the Prayer Day event "without violating its constitutional obligations regarding the separation of church and state."

The court held that cities do not violate free speech rights when they subsidize certain events but not others, comparing the practice to the National Endowment for the Arts' policy of giving grants to some artists but not all.

Berzon also dismissed the plaintiffs' claims that the city had burdened their ability to practice religion. She noted that despite the lack of the subsidy, the event went off as planned and was well attended, writing, "[T]he government's denial of a financial subsidy for microphones and lights to a religious group is a far cry from its outright prohibition of the group's religious practices."

The case, Gentala v. City of Tucson, was originally filed by the ACLJ in 1997.