Compass: If private schools accept public funds, they may not be so private

By CHANTELLE PENCEFebruary 13, 2014 

"Mom, if one more person asks me if I'm Mexican!" The comment came from my caramel-colored son a few months into his new experience at a private religious school. There was some racial diversity at the school, and he spoke with good humor about the interest (from other students) in his skin. But there were other questions that caused deep distress.

For about a week he questioned whether or not he would go to hell, if he didn't believe exactly like others at his school believed. This wasn't just a mild curiosity, this was an up-all-night struggle between the old ideas of his inherent goodness, and the new ideas of his sinful nature. He wasn't raised in the church, and we didn't realize how much he would take to heart the stories of brimstone and fire. The light went out of his eyes, as he spent many hours focusing on his flaws instead of his school work.

Our intention in seeking out a private school was for the common reasons. We wanted a school that would provide good academic instruction, and we certainly got that. But he was too distracted by feelings of unworthiness to make the grade. We thought that a smaller school would be more comfortable for a rural transplant. We didn't take into consideration how cliquish a small group can be. We liked the idea of a school that had a moral standard, a dress code, and one that was infused with spiritual inspiration. We didn't worry too much about hell and damnation. But our son did.

He began to second guess himself, question his own goodness, and was keenly aware of how he didn't fit in. We have since switched to home school, and he has his sights set on a public school for next year. The light is back in his eyes. I'm pretty sure that light is a sign that God dwells in him.

Another child is attending the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, where he receives quality academic instruction from an energetic teacher. The school provides a morning message where Elders, and others from the community, talk to the students about what it means to be a real human being, and how to practice that walk in the world. The school is infused with Alaska Native culture, and was designed to be a place for urban Alaska Native children to learn in an environment that would promote certain cultural ideals. But they are not exclusive. They are a public school, subject to the same laws of other public schools.

If public funds are allowed to go to private schools, will the private schools still be exclusive? One of the first questions our middle son was asked, in the interview he went through before being admitted to the private school, was: "When you die, are you going to heaven or hell?" He looked uncomfortable, and mumbled "I dunno," at which time my husband and I jumped in and explained our spiritual belief system. I knew that gay people weren't allowed at the school, so I was a little concerned that perhaps we wouldn't be either if we didn't talk the religious talk. Which, in many cases, seems to be the most important thing in church society.

I found many wonderful and dedicated people in the private group that we paid to be a part of. I could see the ways in which the organization enhanced the city. Even though it didn't work out for our middle child, our younger son wants to go to school there when he reaches eighth grade. He is resilient, a bit devilish at times, so I think he would do just fine. As I write this though, I wonder if I'm blowing his chances. If we apply for him to go to school there, will he be denied because of the views I express in this article? A part of the admission process requires parents to sign an agreement to not talk about the school in the news or social media. Will private schools still get to play by their own rules, if they receive public money? Will they get to pick and choose who is worthy?

A private school is exclusive by design, and there are very valid reasons for this. But if private schools open their pocketbooks to public funding, won't they have to open their doors to the general public that the government represents? Gays, people of all races and religions, atheists, and heaven-on-earth believers like us, would have to be admitted if we showed up at the door with a voucher. This would drastically change the nature of the private schools. Would an open door policy change religious schools for better or worse?

You choose.

Chantelle Pence is a writer and consultant (Copper River Consulting). She lives with her family in Anchorage.

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