Is Sanders' school bill against indoctrination or not?

Karl Richter
Karl Richter

"Education, not indoctrination" has been a theme in the rollout of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' LEARNS education reform plan, which the state Senate has passed and seems on track to soon become law.

A substantial portion of the 144-page bill sets out just what that means.

It would forbid public school "teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory ... that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual's color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law."

Another cornerstone of the bill, however, would not only promote such indoctrination, but also force taxpayers to fund it.

The Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account Program -- a voucher scheme touted as giving parents unlimited school choice -- would funnel public funds to private Christian schools whose explicit mission is to provide religious indoctrination, and that operate under loose nondiscrimination standards.

Private Christian schools are free to indoctrinate students with religious ideologies that the public school standard would prohibit.

Teaching that same-sex marriages are illegitimate conflicts with the principle of equal protection under the law, at least according to the Supreme Court, and encourages discrimination based on familial status.

Teaching that women should be subordinate to men encourages sex-based discrimination. Teaching that divorce is sinful encourages discrimination based on marital status.

Teaching that humanism is immoral encourages creed-based discrimination, and of course, teaching that any Christian denomination is the only correct one encourages religious discrimination.

There are plenty more dogmas that students in private Christian schools are indoctrinated with every day, and that a reasonable taxpayer could object to -- from creationism taught in science classes, to debunked claims that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, to the dangerous idea that religious beliefs trump the rule of law.

Apparently, ideas only count as ideologies, and education as indoctrination, when Sanders and other supporters of the bill don't like what's being taught.

I'm tempted to ask how they would feel about being forced to pay for students' education in an Islamic madrasa, but hypotheticals are unnecessary. Christians need only read the list of Arkansas private schools eligible for voucher funding to find at least one kind of Christianity they would prefer not to subsidize.

If you're Catholic, for example, do you want to be forced to fund a Protestant school teaching students that your faith is heretical, or vice versa?

Despite such objections, a large proportion of Freedom Account funds would go to Christian schools.

To participate in the program, a school must meet "accreditation requirements established by the State Board of Education, the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association, Inc., or its successor, or another accrediting association recognized by the state board," according to the LEARNS bill.

The ANSAA's 2022-2023 directory lists 64 accredited or associate schools that would meet that criterion. Of those, 60 -- 94% -- are Christian schools. No other religion is represented.

Because the LEARNS bill establishes nondiscrimination rules for private schools weaker than those for public schools, that means most private schools receiving voucher money could turn students away for religious reasons. And no one should be surprised when they do.

According to the bill, Arkansas public schools must abide by Title IV and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which together prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion.

But private schools eligible to receive Freedom Account money must certify only that they will not discriminate according to one clause in Title VI. That section prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin -- leaving sex, religion and other protected statuses out of the equation.

ANSAA accreditation standards require schools to write and publish nondiscrimination statements but are silent about what they should include.

How much choice does a parent really have if, potentially, the best academic option for their child can refuse them admission because they hold the "wrong" religious beliefs? Or because a church otherwise disapproves of them?

None of the above problems with the LEARNS bill have been much discussed, likely because a 2022 Supreme Court decision foreclosed any remedies.

In Carson v. Makin, the court ruled that Maine, as SCOTUSblog put it, could not refuse "to make public funding available for students to attend schools that provide religious instruction."

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court has shifted "from a rule that permits States to decline to fund religious organizations to one that requires States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars."

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, agreed in an amicus brief, saying the court "is forcing taxpayers to fund religious education."

Refusing to do so once was one of Arkansas' founding principles.

Article 2, Section 24 of the state Constitution holds that no one "can, of right, be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship; or to maintain any ministry against his consent."

Sanders and her supporters should explain why they disagree.

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