Secular Schooling Is Critical to a Functioning Democracy

The US education system is being desecularized as public money floods into private religious schools. This mix of religious conservatism and free-market fundamentalism threatens to unravel public education.

First grade students at a Catholic elementary school on the first day of classes in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 7, 2021. (Allison Dinner / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Last month, the New York Times published an extensive investigation into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, or yeshivas, commonly attended by New York’s Hasidic population. “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money” paints a horrifying picture of religious schools that claim public funding while graduating young adults who cannot read and write in English. These schools are designed, Eliza Shapiro and Brian Rosenthal explain, “to wall [students] off from the secular world.”

Following the Times’ investigation and subsequent editorial pressure, New York officials have signaled that they may take a tougher approach to overseeing these private schools. Lawmakers have tended to eschew interference with Hasidic yeshivas, likely in deference to this highly disciplined single-issue voting bloc. Questions related to ultra-Orthodox education are currently being litigated at various levels of the judicial hierarchy.

The Times story echoes what whistleblowers have been saying for years. Young Advocates for Fair Education Reform (YAFFED), an advocacy group started by yeshiva alumnus Naftuli Moster, has collected shocking testimonials from former yeshiva students who recount schooling experiences characterized by authoritarian control and academic deprivation. High school students may devote more than thirteen hours a day, six days a week, exclusively to Torah study and prayer.

Interestingly, the Times has presented their reporting in such a way that readers could reasonably conclude that educational neglect and taxpayer-funded religious indoctrination are unique to the Hasidic communities of New York. They are not. In fact, our radicalized Supreme Court has handed down a series of decisions that annihilate the proverbial wall of separation between church and state, emboldening those who would use our privatized public education system to push a conservative Christian social vision.

In this context, we should treat #YeshivaGate not as an isolated scandal but rather as a preview: religious straitjackets are coming for more American students if we don’t aggressively defend the role of secular schooling in a pluralist democracy.

The Christianization of Public Schools

In recent years, the de-secularization of our nation’s public school system has proceeded rapidly on numerous fronts — some more eye-catching than others. The bizarre Bremerton case made headlines, for example, when the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled in favor of a football coach who repeatedly engaged in ostentatious public prayer during school events. This ruling counters decades of precedent, paving the way for sanctioned proselytizing by authority figures in public schools.

Much attention has also been paid to legislation, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that requires public school employees to enforce a narrow vision of Christian morality. Many of these policies seek to reverse cultural change by sowing fear of parental litigation, meaning that their impact can ripple far beyond legislative boundaries.

One development that may be less familiar concerns taxpayer funding for schools that, like the Hasidic yeshivas, force children to study religious doctrine. Since 2002, it has been constitutionally permissible for states with voucher programs to direct taxpayer funding to religious schools. And three days before the Dobbs decision last spring, while the general public was rightly focused on reproductive health, the Supreme Court ruled that in fact states must subsidize religious education wherever they subsidize secular private education. So although the Times’ yeshiva reporting asserts that “tax dollars are not supposed to go toward religious education,” legally speaking, that isn’t true.

Carson v. Makin

For over a century, Maine has had a town tuitioning program that brings approved private schools into the public school system in order to meet the needs of rural residents without access to traditional public high schools. In order to qualify for state subsidies, private schools have had to meet certain requirements, including that they be “nonsectarian.” In Carson v. Makin, two families sued Maine’s education commissioner, claiming that she had violated their freedom of religious expression by refusing to fund their children’s tuition at two different Christian schools.

One of the schools in question lists as its first educational objective: “To lead each unsaved student to trust Christ as his/her personal savior and then to follow Christ as Lord of his/her life.” Their Statement of Faith declares that any sexual activity or identity expression that falls outside of a Christian marriage between “one man and one woman” is a “sinful perversion,” and that a wife must “submit herself to the Scriptural leadership of her husband.” The other school’s mission includes fostering “within each student an attitude of love and reverence for the Bible as the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God,” and “imparting a biblical understanding of the nature of government and an appreciation for our Judeo-Christian heritage as Americans.” Both schools have policies that discriminate against students and staff on the basis of LGBTQ status and religious affiliation.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor observed in her dissenting opinion, by requiring states to “subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars,” the Court “leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.” Sotomayor also points out that by protecting Christian schools from religious discrimination, the Court is forcing Maine to fund another form of discrimination. Maine responded to this problem by warning that private schools can claim tuition assistance only if they comply with the state’s antidiscrimination laws.

Attorney and leading education policy scholar Kevin Welner told Jacobin that one or both of the schools in Carson may be planning to challenge this rule. SCOTUS has thus far declined to say outright that religious freedom must include the freedom to discriminate, but they seem to be heading in that direction.

Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has worked extensively on this topic, argues that by requiring Maine to fund religious schools through its town tuitioning program (which, he explained to Jacobin, “falls about midway between a typical charter school policy and a typical voucher policy”) the Court has opened the door to religious charter schools. Religious institutions already operate “faith-friendly” charter schools that maintain a veneer of secularity. But as Welner told Jacobin, “Carson v. Makin . . . arguably allows a church to operate the school as a religious school — replete with proselytizing, prayer, Bible study, and the like.”

While voucher and neo-voucher laws already enable states to subtract money from their public school systems in order to fund religious schools (which can discriminate and which may or may not need to meet basic academic standards), religious charters would enable proselytizing and religiously motivated discrimination to occur within public school systems. This presents grave questions, considering that charters educate nearly 15 percent of all public school students in the United States.

For example, “in New Orleans, which now is run as an all-charter district,” Welner writes, “the church-state distinction would be eviscerated. In that district, as well as many others, students’ antidiscrimination protections may devolve into a confusing patchwork.” What would happen to kids and families who are deemed “sinful perversions” by all of the nearby schools? Welner talks about what he calls “the outsourcing of discrimination.” States with an historic interest in making discrimination possible can do so by privatizing public schools.

Neoliberalism Breeds Authoritarianism

The Times’ reporting focuses on the academic deficiencies of New York’s yeshivas, noting that teachers are sometimes hired from Craigslist. Indeed, the YAFFED testimonials are astounding: yeshiva alumni recount reaching eighteen without ever encountering terms like “molecule,” and “the Civil War.”

But again, the big picture problems here are not confined to Brooklyn and the northern New York suburbs. Shady educational practices occur across the United States each day, as private schools — religious or otherwise — claim public education dollars accompanied by little or no oversight. The Network for Public Education’s (NPE) latest privatization report explains that significant numbers of states do not require teachers at voucher schools be certified or even submit to background checks. Ninety-six percent of states with voucher programs make parents sign away their children’s disability protections in order to obtain tuition assistance. Seven states don’t make voucher schools follow the same health and safety regulations that govern their public counterparts.

Education savings account (ESA, or neo-voucher) programs are, as NPE’s report states, “especially ripe for fraud.” An audit of an Arizona program, for example, revealed that parents had spent $700,000 intended for children’s education on improper purchases including beauty supplies and clothing. All of these voucher and neo-voucher programs drain money from public schools, making it harder for those schools to give kids the high-quality secular learning experiences that support both personal fulfillment and democracy.

Privatization, in other words, has yielded educational failure. And as legal historian and law and political economy scholar Kate Redburn persuasively argues, it has also paved the way for religious takeover. Referring to Kennedy v. Bremerton and Carson v. Makin, Redburn writes:

These cases should be understood within the context of the conservative legal movement, whose libertarian and Christian wings have orchestrated a two-step process to shift the democratic articulation of public values and the allocation of public resources to private religious power. The first step . . . is to privatize public goods and services. The second step is to eliminate the distinction between religious and secular in the newly empowered private sphere.

To illustrate this point, Redburn discusses Fulton v. Philadelphia, a 2021 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Philadelphia had violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by declining to contract with a Catholic charity for foster care services. The city had made this determination because the charity in question refused to place children with same-sex foster parents, and Philadelphia has antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people on the books. Redburn, who studies the history of religious objections to antidiscrimination laws, writes:

The fact that public social goods had already been privatized — the foster care services in question had been provided by private charities for quite a long time — was used as a justification for the Court to reach back through the public/private partnership to replace civic values with the social preferences of the private religious entity.

There’s a lot of compelling writing about how free-market fundamentalists formed expedient alliances with Christian fundamentalists in order to pursue their agenda of privatization and deregulation. But in conversation with Jacobin, Redburn explained that this “strange bedfellows” thesis misses something:

It’s not just that there’s a coalition between those two groups. It’s that there’s an important group of people who derive their market fundamentalism from their evangelical theology. And those people are important . . . because those are the people who pioneered the legal arguments that are driving all of this change.

With this history in mind, Redburn argues that powerful elements of the conservative legal movement are intent on replacing “the New Deal settlement not with a libertarian vision of market freedom, but rather an arrangement in which the market is embedded in a conservative Christian social vision.”

Losing Ground

Following the Times’ reporting, and the subsequent announcement that New York’s Board of Regents had finally approved new rules requiring minimum academic standards for private schools, a motley right-wing crew rushed to defend the yeshivas. School choice cheerleaders, transphobic conspiracy hustlers, radical libertarians, and even Breitbart News were suddenly eager to speak for the needs of Hasidic communities, claiming that public schools are far worse for children than draconian religious schools.

Why are neo-nazi sympathizers anxious to cosign Hasidic grand rabbis? Because defending the yeshivas’ repulsion of oversight furthers a goal that has long animated disparate elements of the Right: a fully privatized school system in which parents are responsible for educating our children with little help from the state, and kids have nowhere to turn to find themselves outside of their parents’ authority.

It’s not, as some have suggested, anti-semitic for the Times to question the educational practices of a tiny subset of American Jews. It is irresponsible, though, to critique public funding for yeshivas without acknowledging the broader landscape of school systems increasingly captured by Christian nationalist aims. Right-wing voices may lavish concern for the Hasidim’s unique cultural needs, but it’s foolish to think that minority religious groups will ultimately benefit from the future the Right seeks. Let’s just watch, for example, how Jewish free exercise objections to abortion bans play out.

All kids deserve fully funded public schools that provide rich secular learning experiences, including the experience of pursuing knowledge alongside heterogeneous others. But as SCOTUS unleashes a revolutionized Free Exercise Clause on our battered public systems, this vision of schooling is in peril.