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Public schools: Don't undermine (editorial)

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Public schools: Don't undermine
Charleston Gazette editorial (www.wvgazettemail.com)

The 2017 Legislature met for organizing purposes last week, then recessed for a month until it officially starts on Feb. 8.

Under strong Republican control, it's likely to pursue a conservative agenda with heavy impact on West Virginia -- as it did last year. Among various right-wing goals, here's one that should trouble everyone:

Several leaders say they want to expand "school choice," which usually means taking tax support away from public schools and giving it to private, often religious, schools. Parents could be given vouchers to spend public funds wherever they choose.

Education reporter Ryan Quinn related that West Virginia has 145 private schools -- of which more than 100 are faith-based. Further, home-schooling has a strong evangelical factor, aided by fundamentalist online courses.

Federal estimates say around three-fourths of home-schooling is done by fundamentalist parents who dislike the secular values of public schools.

Quinn found that West Virginia pupils in private schools dropped from 13,000 to 10,000 over the past five years, while the number who are home-schooled rose from 7,000 to 11,000. Home-schooling now exceeds private schooling in this state.

Theoretically, it's unconstitutional to divert public tax funds to religion. It violates the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which mandates separation of church and state. But many conservative states nonetheless allow the practice.

Catholic schools tend to be superior, with strong academic programs. Their students have a nearly 100-percent college-going rate. But evangelical schools -- and some home-schooling -- produce less-satisfactory results, according to various studies.

A year ago, the president of Tyler County's school board removed her children from public schools because she objected to the teaching of evolution in biology classes. West Virginia's foremost evolution opponent, Karl Priest, launched a movement urging evangelicals to pull their children from public schools.

Amway heiress Betsy DeVos, who has spent decades advocating tax money for fundamentalist schools, has been appointed America's new education secretary. Incoming president Donald Trump wants $20 billion in tax money diverted to such schools.

When the Legislature returns Feb. 8, West Virginians will face the issue of whether tax money should subsidize church education.

If parents want to give their children a religious education, that is their business, even if they value religious education over academic rigor. But it is not acceptable to expect the public to pay for it, especially at the expense of a public school system charged with serving every student, of any religion, ability level or background.