The Religious Right and the Tea Party on “Education Choice”

This week controversial Maine tea party governor Paul LePage signed a law making Maine the 41st state to establish a charter school program.

The state of Maine has debated charter schools for years but this year the controversial tea party supported governor and the increased hostility toward public employees unions (especially, in this case, the teachers’ union) gave the pro-charter forces the boost they needed. The New York Times recently reported on the tie between the hostility to unions and the variety of anti-public school measures across the nation, fostered by the tea party group Freedom Works.

Privatizing public education (and ultimately eliminating it) has long been a goal of the religious right and it has, really for the first time, become a viable possibility, thanks in some measure to active tea party support. Yet the various efforts toward privatization across the nation are provoking some disagreement within the tea party movement and in conservative circles in general.

Like many state charter programs, Maine’s charter schools will be released from school board oversight but will still be required to meet state and federal educational standards. The schools cannot be religious in nature and the must be open to anyone who wishes to attend, though there will be a limit on the number of schools (no more than ten in the next decade) and the number of students enrolled.

Opponents see charter schools as quasi-privatized schools (and also fear that this is a first step toward further privatization). They see even these limited charter schools as a threat to funding for public education—especially in these difficult budget years where public education budgets are already being slashed.

Proponents, on the other hand, tout charter schools as “educational choice,” and a way to effectively reach students who don’t do well in a traditional educational setting. They see charters as a strategy to address declining standards in public education by fostering competition and innovation. At the signing ceremony the Governor said

“This is important. This provides choice. This is another element in our education system that we can use to provide our children with the best possible education here in the state of Maine.”

Other proponents see this as a first step toward having education dollars following all students to any school their families choose—indeed, toward further privatization.

But there is a debate within conservative circles over whether or not shifting public funds to private or quasi-private institutions is the best strategy for eventual elimination of what is seen as a government usurpation of a family responsibility. Indeed citing the Times article, Gary North recently wrote about a tea party-sponsored school voucher plan as an issue that might even split the tea party:

“The idea is being challenged by libertarian Tea Party members… That the movement could divide over school vouchers indicates that there is a recurring disagreement within the Right over what the civil government should fund and why, as well as what it should not fund and why not.”

Reconstructionists and other religious right activists (many of whom are now involved in the tea party) have long been, at most, ambivalent about how to engage issues related to the public schools they do not think should exist. To the surprise of many, they often oppose voucher and tuition tax credit plans, charter schools, and even efforts to teach creationism in the public schools or return prayer to the public schools.

As the Times article points out, the tea party seems to be more united in what it opposes than in what supports.