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Elise Patkotak: Voucher system disregards the traditional separation of church and state

Elise Patkotak

I mentioned in my column last week that I went to Catholic school. In fact, I never went to a public school up to and including college. I attended St. Michael's Elementary, Holy Spirit High and Chestnut Hill College. All were Catholic institutions taught almost exclusively by nuns, with the occasional priest thrown in for good measure. My brother and sister followed the same path. None of us attended the public schools for which our parents paid taxes.

While all that Catholicism did not, as my mother so dearly wished, produce three good Catholic adults who observe any religious rituals, it did result in three educated and capable adults with a strong sense of ethics and morals.

Given the debate currently raging about the possibility of using vouchers to send children to private schools, most of which have some religious affiliation, I have to wonder how the schools of my youth would view the situation and whether they would want to participate. My initial response is no, they would not want to participate because they would not want to give up a single iota of the freedom they enjoyed to educate their students in a decidedly religious fashion.

The most important reason for having a Catholic school was to provide an education with a religious emphasis. If using vouchers would have required them to readjust their curriculum to a more secular track, they would have resisted and refused the vouchers. After all, the whole focus and purpose of the institution was to offer a good education steeped in Catholic beliefs and morality.

So I have to wonder why so many religious schools in this state are pushing for the voucher system. Assuming the separation of church and state is still a viable concept in Alaska, I would assume (hope?) that schools receiving financial aid in the form of vouchers from state taxpayers would be required to adjust their curriculum so that the emphasis was on secular teaching and not religious belief. Otherwise, we are simply breaching the wall that our Founding Fathers so carefully erected between the public good and private religious practices.

Just about anyone with a basic grasp of American history will acknowledge that what made our country great and allowed the middle class to flourish and contribute to America's success was access to education for everyone. Whether you were the governor's son or the trash collector's daughter, you had an equal chance at an education through the public school system. The fact that those with money could afford a private school did not mean that the poor did not stand a chance. Public education was free to the masses and the masses took advantage of it to build the amazing country we enjoy today. Weakening that system by slowly and inexorably draining its financial resources, which will benefit the few to the detriment of the many, is wrong. It is doubly wrong if, in doing so, we are supporting religious beliefs that not all share.

Those who wish to have their children educated in other than the public schools have the right to place their children in any private school they want. But I should not be paying for that private school with my taxes. If private religious schools are as anxious as they seem to be to educate children into their beliefs, then the membership of those churches should pony up the money to keep the schools viable. It is not my responsibility to keep someone else's religion alive. My parents knew this and the Catholic schools I attended knew this. They never asked for the public to support the education they provided because they wanted the freedom to provide that education within their own religious context. They understood the concept of separation of church and state.

Our public schools are required to open their doors to all students, no matter the special needs, family background or religious beliefs. They are required to provide every child who walks through their doors with an education. Rather than penalizing them for the difficulties they encounter in meeting the requirements we have set for them by law, perhaps we should add money in so they can meet our expectations and continue to produce generations of educated Americans who will move our country forward into the next century.

Elise Patkotak's lastest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.

 


Elise Patkotak