Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has appealed to the nation's Roman Catholic bishops to open the doors of their schools to provide "supplemental educational services" for America's schoolchildren, promising them the taxpayer will pick up the tab.
"Thousands of students in your communities could benefit from the knowledge and skill of your teachers," Spellings told the Conference of Catholic Bishops Feb. 28. "We will provide federal funds. We just need you to open your doors...just as you have always done for children in need."
Furthermore, Spellings added, Catholic schools can take public funds without watering down their sectarian approach one iota. "And you can do it in a program that protects your religious freedom because the Department has issued a faith-based regulation with strong language to protect religious organizations providing supplemental services," she said.
Spellings also praised Catholic education, noting that one of her own children attends a Catholic school. She vowed to work with President George W. Bush to bring private school "choice" to more parents, touting a $50-million line item for vouchers in the Bush budget.
For those who remember the Reagan years, Spellings' remarks were an unwelcome blast from the past. During the '80s, then-Education Secretary William Bennett spent most of his time and efforts trying to force vouchers and other forms of public support for private (mostly religious) schools onto the American people.
Meanwhile, the nation's public schools continued to grapple with overcrowding, shortage of supplies, poorly paid teachers and an ever-expanding number of federal mandates.
Spellings is apparently determined to continue Bennett's failed legacy. Only 10 percent of American schoolchildren attend private schools. Americans consistently tell pollsters they want more attention and funding for public education.
Yet in one of her first major public appearances since taking office, Spellings pandered to the religious school lobby.
Like Bennett, Spellings' priorities are sadly out of whack, and she dances to the tune called by anti-public school advocates. On her first day on the job, she sent a letter to PBS threatening to withhold department funding unless the network yanked an episode of a children's program called "Postcards from Buster" that included some scenes with a family headed by a lesbian couple. PBS promptly caved, and the Religious Right applauded.
Bush's claims to be interested in the education of our children ring hollow. His first education secretary was the ineffective Rod Paige, who joined Bush in an obsession over mandatory testing and promoted a "No Child Left Behind" bill whose mandates are so stifling even Republican governors are rebelling against them. Paige admitted to a preference for religious schooling.
Paige is gone, but now the nation is stuck with an education secretary whose chief priorities are keeping the Religious Right and the parochial school aid lobby happy.
The Bush-Spellings plan for the next four years is clear: Public schools get more mandatory testing and unfunded mandates. Private religious schools get generous promises of taxpayer support.
It looks like another lean four years for America's public schools.