My grandparents sent their children to public school because they couldn't afford anything else. As Italian immigrants who were mostly illiterate, they were thrilled that their children were receiving an education. They figured they could handle the religious stuff at home.
When I was growing up, my parents made a different choice. They sent my brother, my sister and me to exclusively Catholic schools. They didn't have a lot of spare cash, and sometimes the parish kicked in that year's tuition if they were short. But one way or another, all three of us were in Catholic school from pre-kindergarten through college.
It seems to me that one of the bedrocks of this country is not only the separation of church and state, but also the guarantee that all children have the right to an education. It's really what creates equality. Doesn't matter how poor you or your parents are. If you can get an education, you can get ahead. You can move from the lowest rung to the highest rung of society. Minimally, you can inch your way into what's left of America's middle class. In my youth, that was called "The Immigrant's Dream."
The bill now in the Legislature that would allow vouchers for parents to use state money to pay for private education for their children has the potential to destroy what many of us consider one of the most critical components of our society. It may not be a component that always works as well as we would like, but given the challenges we present to our schools to educate every child that walks through their doors, be that child special needs, language challenged or genius level intelligent, it works pretty darn well most of the time.
Since the current Legislature has to deal with looming budget shortfalls as oil revenue slides inexorably downhill, to say nothing of keeping people warm as fuel supplies dwindle and costs rise, I wonder how they plan to pay for this voucher program. If they take the money from the already underfunded and painfully stretched current school budgets, how will the children left in public schools ever have a chance to be competitive? And what about the bureaucracy that would need to develop to assure that all children, no matter where their parents choose for them to be schooled, were receiving an education based on facts and proven science and not religious beliefs? Oh yeah, and when the first parent applies for a voucher so their child can attend a madrassa, I have to wonder how our legislators will react.
I find it very interesting that some of the very same people who squeal like stuck pigs if someone makes the slightest suggestion that even the most minimal steps be taken to curb the use of deadly weapons, because it would infringe on their interpretation of the Second Amendment, have no problem trampling all over the Constitutional mandate for the separation of church and state. I'm not surprised that this is the same group that screams government interference if someone points out that most people don't hunt with semi-automatic rifles. They view that as a violent, overreaching effort of government to get into their private business. Asking my tax dollars to pay for your child's religious education strikes me as an equally violent and overreaching effort of government.
People who pick and chose which parts of the Constitution to support should frighten us all. They want to achieve an objective that runs roughshod over our current protections. In this case, we have documents from the convention that created the Alaska Constitution that make it glaringly obvious that the Founding Fathers of not just this country, but also this state, wanted to keep a solid wall between government and religion. It was their way of giving everyone a fair chance without being judged on whether a spirit in the sky, a flaming bush or a jolly fat man, represented your god.
Religious freedom throughout the world is a bitter and divisive issue. In some countries, believing the wrong way will get you killed. The men who founded this country came from just such societies and did everything they could to prevent that from happening here. So did the founders of this state. Our current legislators apparently think they know better. Trust me, they don't.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.
By ELISE PATKOTAK