James Gill: Voucher program not living up to promises

Imagine if the law required voucher schools to be “academically acceptable,” as the legislative auditor has recommended.

By any rational standard, that would rule out all schools that tell kids evolution is a lie. A lot of the schools wouldn’t make the cut, because vouchers have been a godsend to the fundamentalists. Kids transferred out of failing public schools often end up in church schools that banish science in favor of creationist fantasy. It is their proudest boast.

Take, for instance, what its handbook describes as the “Bible-centered curriculum” at the Bishop McManus Academy in eastern New Orleans.

That somewhat grand moniker notwithstanding, this is not exactly a seat of learning. In fact, it was one of seven schools banned earlier this year from accepting any more voucher students because they had done such a lousy job with the ones they had, who were nevertheless left in place.

In the case of Bishop McManus, that meant 101 kids, well over half the enrollment.

They will be severely punished if they misbehave. No, of course that doesn’t mean school administrators beat students at Bishop McManus. That would be incompatible with their Christian faith. Instead, they summon parents to wield the paddle while they watch.

In the handbook, the folks at Bishop McManus describe with great relish the fate that awaits sinners. “We believe that the fearful, unbelieving, abominable, whoremongers, sorcerers, idolators and liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone which is the second death.” They got so excited writing that they lost count of the commas.

So long as such notions are promulgated at public expense, it is no surprise that voucher kids are prescribed textbooks published by Bob Jones University and other institutions that maintain God created the earth in six days a few thousand years ago.

Rational Christians realize they can have their faith and evolution too, since science and religions exist in different spheres. But what Mencken termed the booboisie insists we have to choose. In that case the smart money must go on the side supported by the evidence. Schools that deny evolution can only churn out ignoramuses, which seems an odd way to spend the public dollar.

It is true that the heresy of creationism can sometimes crop up in the public schools, where biology teachers are permitted to introduce “supplemental materials,” to use the statutory euphemism for propaganda approved by the zealots of the Family Forum. But only voucher schools start off solidly opposed to evolution as a matter of official policy.

Every day at Bishop McManus features Bible reading and prayer, while chapel services are held weekly.

A “wholesome Christian atmosphere” reigns on campus, where students are always subject to search. Perhaps this is all too time-consuming to allow for much academic advancement; for three consecutive years, less than 25 percent of the school’s voucher students met the undemanding standard of “proficient” in standardized tests before the supply was cut off.

Clearly, if voucher schools had to be “academically acceptable,” Bishop McManus would not have been admitted in the first place. Neither would Lord knows how many others.

The program is clearly failing to deliver on its supporters’ promises of an educational turnaround. Nevertheless, Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who sponsored the voucher law, says there is nothing “urgent to do at this time,” while Chas Roemer, president of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, says, “The measures we put into place are doing what they were supposed to.”

That, indeed, is probably true. God help us.

Correction: The headline on Friday’s column, “Robertson just as smart as Palin,” should have compared Gov. Bobby Jindal, rather than Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, with Sarah Palin.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.