Nikki Haley: Churches Should Take Over Universal Pre-K Education

In the South Carolina gubernatorial race, how to improve the state’s abysmal education statistics became a topic during a debate this past week. In Jasper County, South Carolina, for example, one of the poorest in the state, nearly half of all preschool-age children are judged “not ready for the first grade” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Survey


State Rep. Nikki Haley, the Sarah Palin-endorsed Republican candidate, responded to a question about whether or not South Carolina should implement a universal pre-K program for four-year-olds in the state. Haley emphasized that the state can’t afford such a program right now and if elected she would look to faith-based organizations to take over that responsibility.

“What I will do is get a huge faith-based coalition together from all over the state and develop a community project, which is preschool programs, afterschool programs, job shadowing, mentoring, won’t cost the first dollar,” she said. “But just imagine what we could do if we create a plan like that for South Carolina where they can go into those rural areas and sometimes show those kids something they don’t always see, or mentor them, or help them with their homework in a way they don’t get. That’s when South Carolina will be strong again. That’s when we can make improvements that are creative that don’t cost government dollars.”

Yes, just imagine! As in most of the country, and especially in the deep South like South Carolina, when Haley says “faith-based organizations” what she really means is “Christian organizations.” Here in South Carolina, Muslims, Jews, or any liberal faiths like the Unitarian Universalists or the United Church of Christ, need not apply.

What Haley proposes to do is put conservative Christians in charge of the earliest learning experiences of children around the state—organizations that may, indeed, do a good job at helping children get ready for school—but at the same time have a clear evangelical mission of recruiting children and families into their brand of theological beliefs. Certainly, the faith-based organizations would have no objection to a steady stream of new potential converts.

The plan, of course, flies in the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state, but it also completely abdicates the government’s responsibility to ensure that children are given a comprehensive education — free from religious bias. Children should certainly be taught to read, but I’d rather they learn it by reading Dick and Jane instead of Adam and Eve.

On the issue of poverty, Haley, too, would look to the faith-based organizations to take over from the government. Statistics from the National Center for Children and Poverty shows that in South Carolina in 2008, 24 percent of children under age of 8 lived in poverty. That’s an annual income of $22,000 for family of four.

Haley said again, that using “government dollars” to provide for the poor isn’t the best strategy.

“Again, I’d go to those faith-based organizations. They are so ready to go to work. We have so many people who give on their own because they want to do it,” she said. “If we pulled these faith-based organizations together and said these are the areas, these are the kids going without meals all weekend long, the only meals they get is during school, we could really start to make a community-wide, statewide system to make sure we have those children fed, we make sure we have those after school programs, where we have that job shadowing and mentoring. I think it would be an amazing thing for our state and a huge example for the entire country.”

Her Democratic opponent, State Senator Vincent Sheheen, emphasized that faith-based groups doing charitable work are already stretched to their limits, but didn’t touch the constitutional concerns her proposal raises. “I value the non-profits and faith-based organizations in this community. I take my faith very seriously,” said Sheheen, who is Catholic. “What I see in my community is that faith-based organizations are already active. Our faith community is doing yeoman’s service out there. I want to engage them and include them but let’s not pretend they’re not out there doing what needs to be done on their part right now, because they really are.”

But the reason the faith-based organizations are working so hard in South Carolina already is because the poor and vulnerable have been so utterly abandoned by a government that does all it can to slash taxes for the wealthy at the expense of education and the general welfare of its most needy citizens — something tea party-supported candidates like Haley don’t have a problem with.

Haley’s proposal that the church step in where the state has failed is a perfect crystallization of the marriage of the tea party and the religious right: starve the government, and replace its services with those of the church. This movement that professes constitutional purity abandons it when that serves its political ends.