Religious Minorities

In The Middle Of A Pandemic, Missouri Is Taking Aim At Public Education With Vouchers And Bible Classes

  Samantha Sokol

When it comes to public education, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard. Ninety percent of our students attend public schools. Nearly all of them – 50.8 million public school students – have been ordered to stay home, and about half of those students live in states that announced they won’t be returning to school this academic year.

Teachers are struggling to engage kids with virtual lessons, parents are struggling to care for their kids while working inside or outside the home, and kids can barely keep up. Studies show that students will likely lose 30 percent of their reading gains and nearly half of their math gains that we would expect in a normal academic year. With this massive threat to public education, state lawmakers should be developing solutions to help public school students stay on track.

But in Missouri, they are instead advancing bills to weaken public education. This week, state legislators returned to Jefferson City after weeks in limbo due to the pandemic. Once back in session, some of the House Rules Committee’s first actions were to advance HB 2068, a bill to create a private school voucher program, and HB 1345, a bill to offer Bible class electives in public schools. Both bills had already passed the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee back in February, which means they could soon move to the House floor for debate.

Let’s discuss why these bills are so bad for public schools, especially during the current education crisis. First up: HB 2068, which would create a private school voucher called the “Show Me a Brighter Future” Scholarship program. These so-called “scholarships” funnel taxpayer money to private, religious schools, and away from public schools. Public schools need public funds desperately right now to pay teachers and staff, provide technology and distance learning materials, and survive budget cuts due to the pandemic. The last thing they need is to divert public funds to private school vouchers. These programs also don’t improve student achievement, lack appropriate oversight and accountability and even violate the religious freedom provisions in the Missouri Constitution, by forcing Missouri taxpayers to indirectly fund religious education. We explained all of these pitfalls to state legislators in a letter we sent earlier this year about HB 2068.

HB 1345, a bill to offer Bible class electives in public schools, is also harmful. The way Bible classes are taught in public schools often violates the U.S Constitution. The Constitution requires that Bible classes be taught from a secular, non-devotional, and objective perspective – a standard rarely achieved (check out these disastrous examples from Texas’ school bible courses for just one state’s experience). As a result, the classes often are more like Sunday school classes than public school classes, and non-Christian students often feel excluded. Lastly, Bible class bills like this one are a part of Project Blitz, a nationwide campaign by Christian nationalists to impose far-right evangelical Christian views on everyone, including our public school students. Their real purpose is to endorse one narrow religion in public schools, not to teach religion in an academic manner. Read our letter to Missouri legislators about HB 1345 for more details about the problems with this bill.

The COVID-19 pandemic leaves limited instructional time to catch students up on what they’ve missed in math, reading, science, history, and art. Missouri should be focused on getting students back on track in core subjects, not experimenting with Bible classes that will likely violate the U.S. Constitution, and ostracize students who are nonreligious or members of minority religions. And they should make sure that public money funds public schools.

HB 2068 and 1345 won’t help public educators, students, and parents cope with the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic – in fact, they’ll likely make a bad situation worse. It’s time for Missouri’s state legislators to get back on track and avoid advancing these bills any further in the House.

Photo: Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City

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