Monday, February 10, 2014

NY State Campaign for Tax-Funded Religious Ed

In January, an article in the Westchester, N.Y.  Journal News reported that a set of very rich men have so far allocated more than $4.7 million dollars to promote S4099A, the Education Investment Incentives Act, a N.Y. Senate tuition tax credit bill.

They have bankrolled a foundation and its political action committee (PAC), contributed to the election campaigns of more than 100 state legislators, funded well-publicized rallies of private-school students, and put five lobbying firms on retainer.

When a reporter for the Journal News called the foundation, he was referred to James Cultrara, director of education for the N.Y. State Catholic Conference. The Catholic Conference represents the state’s Catholic bishops in matters of public policy. The reporter asked Cultrara about campaign contributions by the foundation’s PAC.

Cultrara responded, “We decided that this time around, not participating at that level was a tremendous disadvantage, and we weren’t going to take a chance. Lawmakers clearly have to run for re-election. It’s not free. Just like countless other PACs, we felt it was necessary to participate at that level.”

Under S4099A, N.Y. taxpayers would collect 100% credits against their state income tax BILLS for donations to scholarship organizations. The organizations would send the donors’ money to schools, including religious ones, for the tuition of children who meet the schools’ requirements. In states that have such programs, nearly all the scholarship money goes to religious schools.

The tax credits would not be the familiar charitable deduction from income before taxes. The state would pay all, not part of the donation. In effect, N.Y. State would direct the income tax payments of donors to sectarian schools.

The Act forbids public officials to regulate the schools it funds.

It includes some exceptions that limit the benefits of the credits. In any one year, a taxpayer can’t take the credit for more than 75% of his or her tax bill. The bill caps total credits for gifts to nonpublic-school scholarships at $1.5 million a year. If credits exceed $1.5 million before the state registers a particular donor’s tax return, he or she can subtract the donated money from a future year’s tax payment, for up to five years.

The Act offers a sweetener for public schools. Donors to public school districts can also claim the tax credits, up to $1.5 million a year. That is, N.Y. State would grant its richest residents the opportunity to distribute an extra $1.5 million per year in state aid to their own public school districts. The legislature can surely find a fairer way to distribute an additional $1.5 million to the state’s public schools.

The legislation probably violates Article XI, Section 3, of the N.Y. Constitution, which explicitly forbids the use of state credit, even indirectly, in aid or maintenance of religious schools.

The Act has no Assembly companion, but it differs little from the Assembly bill, A1826B.

If you would like to tell your N.Y. State senators what you think of S4099A, here is a sample, basic letter.

Dear Senator——,

Please oppose S4099A, the Education Investment Incentives Act, which would provide tax-raised funds for nonpublic schools, including religious ones, by means of donor credits against the State income tax BILL.

You can address all N.Y. State Senators at: N.Y. State Senate, Albany NY 12247.

To Identify Your N.Y. State Senator

If you have no access to a computer, you can call your county Board of Elections.

If you have access to a computer, you can take the following steps to learn the name of your state senator.

1. Google N.Y. State Senate.

2. Click Senators.

3. You will see on the screen’s upper left a dialogue box headed Find My Senator. Fill in the blanks and click submit.

4. You will see a screen with your senator’s name and a space where you can write or paste your message.

NH Governor v. Lawmakers in Tax Credit Lawsuit

The Attorney General of New Hampshire is defending a state tuition tax credit act in court.

In January, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan filed an amicus brief opposing the law. It says, “The governor treasures the diversity of private schools in our state, and fully appreciates their contributions.…But the decision to contribute to a private religious school is a personal decision. It should not be supported by the state’s tax structure, and it should not have the effect of diverting scarce taxpayer dollars from crucial public needs.”

In 2012, the New Hampshire legislature enacted a tuition tax credit bill over the veto of then-Governor John Lynch. Bill Duncan, an advocate for public education, sued, backed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union. The case is Duncan v. New Hampshire.

In June, Superior Court Judge John M. Lewis struck down the aid for religious schools, because it violated the New Hampshire Constitution; but he allowed benefits to continue for non-religious private schools. The Attorney General appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. So did Bill Duncan, who asked the Court to strike down the entire act.

The State Constitution says, “No money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of schools or institutions of any sect or denomination.”

In his decision, Judge Lewis summed up the Attorney General’s position, “The defendants strongly argue that the program does not involve ‘public funds’ or ‘money raised by taxation.’…to constitute such ‘public funds,’ it is argued, the money involved must be collected from the taxpayers and deposited in the New Hampshire treasury.”

The judge rejected that argument. He wrote, “The tax credit under the program is an ‘archetypal tax expenditure,’ which ‘serves the same function as direct government spending’ and has long been recognized as equivalent to a direct appropriation ‘by public finance economists and analysts for at least half a century.’”

Governor Hassan personally opposes the complete act, but her brief argues only against the aid for religious schools. She spoke against the law when she campaigned for governor in 2012, and she cheered Judge Lewis’s decision.

Duncan argues that the state can not justly apply the remains of the act “when it is unclear—as is the case here—whether the legislature would have enacted a statute without the offending provision. Much of the support for the program came from religious schools. Key goals of the program are frustrated when religious schools can not receive funding.”

Air Cadets Needn't Invoke God

In October, the Air Force Academy announced that it would no longer make cadets say “so help me God” when they took their required Honor Oaths.

Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson, the academy superintendent, issued this statement: “Here at the Academy, we work to build a culture of dignity and respect, and that respect includes the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference—or not. So in the spirit of respect, cadets may or may not choose to finish the Honor Oath with ‘so help me God.’”

The oath says, “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.”

Johnson made the change in response to a complaint by Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF).

In 1984, the Air Force added the words, “so help me God,” to its original 1959 oath. The other military academies do not refer to God in their oaths.

Weinstein, who graduated from the Academy in 1977, didn’t know about the added language until reporter Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent told him about a photograph that displayed the oath.

Weinstein contacted the Academy, and a little more than an hour later Johnson got back to him. She told him that a framed poster of the oath had been taken down. She promised to reconsider the oath promptly, and her promise made news.

The Religious Right got angry. At least two leaders of the Family Research Council (FRC) said George Washington had originated the phrase in his presidential oath. No historical evidence supports that claim.

After Johnson made “so help me God” optional, two Texas congressmen introduced a bill that would require congressional approval for any changes to military oaths.

Weinstein is campaigning for deletion of the religious language. He said any cadet who didn’t swear to God would stand out “like a tarantula on a wedding cake.”

In November, MMRF put its message on a billboard in the Academy’s home town, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The billboard shows a photograph of an oath signed in 1778 at Valley Forge by General George Washington. The oath makes no religious reference.

The billboard says, “This oath was good enough for George Washington—Why not the Air Force Academy?” Chris Rodda of MRFF said its billboard displays the Valley Forge oath to counter propaganda that the Founding Fathers established a Christian nation.

As of November, MMRF was considering a lawsuit to remove “so help me God” from the oath.

Evolution in Texas Texts

In December, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) reported, “This year’s sweeping win for science education in Texas now appears to be complete.”

“.…a special expert panel has given unanimous approval to the Pearson biology textbook whose adoption by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) last month had been tripped up by allegations that it contained ‘factual errors.’”

The textbook, named Biology, published by Pearson Education, is the most widely used biology text in the nation. Ide Trotter, a creationist, had objected to it because it presented evolution as scientific fact rather than as a theory in conflict with the Bible. It’s hard to understand why he slammed Biology, because the other textbooks also treated evolution as factual.

In November, SBOE approved all the other biology books, but it sent Biology to a panel of three experts to consider Trotter’s objection. SBOE picked the panelists. SBOE has several creationist members, including its chair. It had chosen many creationists for earlier review panels. However, it chose three respected biologists for this final examination.

OK to Oust Creationist Teacher

Mount Vernon, Ohio public school officials told creationist science teacher John Freshwater to clear Christian displays out of his classroom. Freshwater cleared out some, but not all, of the displays, and he brought in a few new items.

The district fired him, and he sued to get his job back. In November, four judges of the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Mt. Vernon school district could rightfully fire Freshwater for insubordination.

The judges chose not to decide whether Mt. Vernon could fire Freshwater because he taught creationism to his science classes and ignored orders to stop.

Dissenters Argue Like Creationists

Three dissenting judges adopted the creationist rationale. For instance, they used the argument from inadequate evidence.

A massive collection of evidence from many scientific specialties supports evolution. However, some creationists say no evidence supports evolution, and others say the evidence is too skimpy. No amount of evidence would convince them.

All the judges who considered Freshwater’s case commented on the overwhelming volume of evidence, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s dissenting judges thought the evidence of Freshwater’s insubordination too slight to justify his dismissal.

The evidence showed that for years Freshwater had told his students that their science textbooks wrongly taught evolution. He distributed handouts from creationist organizations to them. He told them to reject scientific conclusions inconsistent with the Bible. He filled his classroom with Christian displays.

From time to time over the years, parents complained. School officials told Freshwater to quit, but he did not quit. He continued to promote creationism and his version of Christianity, and the district ignored him until the next complaint.

Finally, one family threatened to sue the district. In response, the district hired a private investigator to learn if Freshwater’s activities advanced religion. The investigator found the copious evidence that led successive judges to approve Freshwater’s dismissal.

Quote-Mining, Teach the Controversy

Creationists search the scientific archive for quotations out of context to use as evidence that some respected scientists deny evolution. When the scientists find out how their work has been misrepresented, they try to set the record straight; but most creationists continue to use the misleading quotations. The corrections never catch up with the falsehoods. Opponents of creationism call the practice quote-mining.

A Religious Right organization, the Rutherford Institute, represented Freshwater before the Ohio Supreme Court. The dissenting judges probably got their mined quotations from the Rutherford lawyer’s brief.

At some point in the original hearings, Freshwater said he wasn’t a creationist. The dissenting judges used that statement as evidence that he didn’t teach creationism. The record showed that Freshwater often contradicted himself and the other evidence.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law requiring public schools to teach creationism in science classes, it added that schools could teach about scientific controversies. Creationists quote that passage to argue that schools can teach creationism, because evolution is controversial.

Friends of evolution reply that evolution is politically, but not scientifically, controversial. Therefore public schools cannot teach creationism in science classes. Numerous scientific societies have issued statements supporting evolution and denouncing creationism.

The dissenting judges concluded that Freshwater had a right to teach creationism, against the district’s orders, because evolution was controversial. As evidence, they quoted the U.S. Supreme Court passage and a remark by a Mt. Vernon teacher that evolution was controversial. The dissenting judges should have known better. Briefs submitted to the court by scientific organizations explained that no scientific controversy existed.

The case is Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon.

Kansas Defends Science Standards

“Distinctions must be drawn to recognize not simply religious and anti-religious, but non-religious governmental activity as well,” said lawyers for the State of Kansas.

In December, Kansas asked a federal district court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the state’s science standards.

The science standards teach that science looks only to natural causes for natural events.

The challengers, Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE), said “Implementation…by Kansas will cause it to endorse a particular religious viewpoint.…with a primary effect that is not religiously neutral, and…will treat atheists and materialists as favored insiders and theists as disfavored outsiders.…”

The State’s lawyers responded that the “Complaint…asks the Court to turn Establishment Clause jurisprudence on its head by ruling that secular scientific principles are actually religious.”

They pointed out that the COPE lawsuit misrepresented the standards. For instance, COPE’s complaint said the standards caused children to consider “ultimate religious questions like what is the cause and nature of life and the universe—where do we come from?”

The State’s lawyers replied, “The…Standards simply do not ask this question. The phrase ‘where do we come from’ is not in them.…the Standards do not claim that science has all the answers to life’s deepest questions.”

On the contrary, the standards explicitly state that “not all questions can be answered by science.”

While MCPEARL members care most about COPE’s effort to bring miracles to science class, the Kansas lawyers offered the court a way to dismiss the lawsuit without discussing religion.

They declared that the Kansas Board of Education and Department of Education, which adopted the standards, lack the authority to implement them. Local school districts may take them or leave them. Therefore, the Board and Department have not and cannot injure COPE. Because COPE has suffered no injury, it has no standing to sue.

The suit is COPE v. Kansas.

Louisiana Holds Back Voucher Info

In January, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said, “The Department of Justice proposal reeks of federal government intrusion and proves the people in Washington running our federal government are more interested in skin color than they are in education.”

Jindal has been ranting quotably at the federal government since August.

Thirty-four of the state’s 64 school districts are still under federal desegregation orders from the 1975 case of Brumfield v. DoddThe court ordered Louisiana not to support private schools in ways that furthered racial segregation in those districts.

In August, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to enforce the court’s commands.  It sued to bar tuition vouchers for students attending public schools in the targeted districts, unless the state got prior approval from the court. The suit is U.S. v. Dodd.

The State of Louisiana and a child’s family both participate in deciding which voucher recipient goes to which school. Families who want vouchers submit a list of desired schools, in order of preference, to the state. The state matches the applicants with available seats.

In November, the DOJ modified its suit. It asked only to monitor the voucher awards.

It asked that the state notify the DOJ of its awards 45 days before it told the recipient families. It asked the state to report each child’s name, race, address, and the public school district he or she would leave. U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle approved. He gave the DOJ and the state 60 days to agree on a reporting process, one not “so arduous it scuttles the voucher program.”

At the end of December, the DOJ filed an expert report saying that voucher pupils are usually assigned to schools where their own race makes up more than 90% of the student body.

In early January, well before the 60 days had passed, the parties had filed separate, incompatible proposals.

The DOJ asked for the 45 day notice and the chance to block school assignments that increased segregation. It wanted the state each autumn to send the DOJ final enrollment counts and analyses of the vouchers’ impact on racial balance in public and private schools.

Louisiana’s lawyers asked Judge Lemelle to close the case of Brumfield v. Dodd, and let the state fund private schools as it chose.

In case he refused, they asked him to reject entirely the DOJ’s plan to monitor the voucher awards. If he wouldn’t do that, they asked his permission to supply information to the DOJ only after the school year had begun. If the judge agreed, the DOJ could not prevent school assignments that promoted segregation.

Highly Critical Report

In December, Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera slammed the voucher program, because it didn’t make participating private schools spend public money properly or educate their voucher students.

Purpera had a hard time getting information. Auditors could follow the tax-raised funds in only three of 118 schools, because the others did not record their voucher income separately. Of those three, one overcharged the state by more than $300,000.

Five schools sought vouchers for youngsters whose families earned too much for the program. Four more schools didn’t know their voucher students’ family incomes. Ten schools didn’t have correct home addresses for pupils.

The private schools must give voucher recipients, but not other children, the same tests as public school students. If the state grades private schools by those scores, as it grades public schools, more than 40% of voucher students attend schools with grades of D or F.

Texas Charter Schools Falsify Evolution

The last time the Texas Board of Education picked science standards, the board’s creationist majority added this. “In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations…, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations.…”

The Responsive Education Solutions charter school system, enrolling more than 17,000 children mostly in Texas, but some in Arkansas and Indiana, uses that language to falsify evolution.

In January, the online magazine, Slate, printed a powerful article by Zack Kopplin about Responsive Ed.

Kopplin reports that Responsive Ed’s biology workbooks “both overtly and underhandedly discredit evidence-based science and allow creationism into public-school classrooms.” Kopplin lists a series of false or misleading workbook statements.

The books say the fossil record is “uncertain,” that “Some scientists…question the validity of conclusions concerning the age of the earth,” and that evolution can’t be tested. They say that evolution competes with other scientific theories, and that it is controversial among scientists.

In quick response to Kopplin’s article, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) called for the Texas education commissioner to investigate Responsive Ed.

TFN led the battle against creationist science standards and against demands to weaken coverage of evolution in Texas textbooks.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA)  made this reply.

“Responsive Ed is voluntarily conducting its own internal review. The Texas Education Agency is also independently reviewing the materials to determine that the state curriculum is being covered.…complaints…regarding instruction at the campus level are a local matter in Texas to be addressed by…boards of local education agencies.”

Responsive Ed’s Chief Executive Officer, Chuck Cook, posted an answer to the Kopplin article. His defense confirms Kopplin’s report.

Here are Cook’s own quotations from the Responsive Ed workbook.

“Evolution by natural selection.…gave nonreligious scientists a way to explain the diversity of life.”

“In recent years, two schools of thought —creationism and evolution—have been at conflict in schools, universities, and scientific circles.”

“For many, supernatural creation…is a more plausible explanation.”

Kopplin’s article prompted the Indiana Charter School Board and the Indianapolis mayor’s charter school office to review Responsive Ed’s curriculum.

The Arkansas Times has tried to get state officials to take action. At the time this article was written, they had brushed off its advice.

If you want to read Kopplin’s article, you can google Zack Kopplin Slate. The article is headed, Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism.