FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Indiana’s rapidly expanding voucher program, which funnels millions of taxpayer dollars into private schools, now funds some Christian schools that teach creationism or intelligent design.
Laws and court rulings limit what the state’s public and charter schools can teach in science classes based on separation of church and state challenges. But the curricula of private schools that enroll voucher students haven’t reached the courtroom.
The rapid growth of the program opens the door to an unanswered question: Can local private schools continue to teach intelligent design and creationism with state-funded voucher money flowing into the schools?
Experts tell The Journal Gazette the issue will have to be addressed in courtrooms.
Data released by the Department of Education show a second year of growth for the state’s voucher program, which allows families to redirect tax dollars from public schools to private schools.
Students attending private schools received $81 million of state-funded vouchers for the 2013-14 school year, but it’s unknown how much goes to schools that teach creationism or similar doctrine.
Five Fort Wayne-area Christian schools that confirmed students are taught creationism or intelligent design, or included curriculum information on their websites stating that they do not teach evolution, received a combined $3.9 million in state-funded vouchers.
The Choice Scholarship Program - more commonly called the voucher program - has grown from 3,911 students statewide in 2011-12, the first year of the program, to 19,809 students for the 2013-14 school year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
Supporters of the program say the vouchers provide students an opportunity to attend the school of their choice, rather than being restricted to the neighborhood public school.
Opponents of the program argue vouchers unfairly direct money away from public schools and into primarily religious institutions.
“If we allow private schools to receive taxpayer money and still use these religious texts, are we then also changing the rules of the game?” Indiana University professor Suzanne Eckes asked.
Department of Education officials did not respond to calls or emails asking for a comment about vouchers and private schools teaching creationism.
Evolution is taught in public schools as “an explanation of the history of life on Earth and the similarities among organisms that exist today,” according to curriculum listed on the Indiana Department of Education’s Learning Connection website.
Several Indiana private schools are listed on CreationistVouchers.com, a website opposing the teaching of creationism in schools that receive taxpayer money.
Some schools, including at least five Fort Wayne-area Christian schools listed on the site, continue to use creationism and intelligent design textbooks for reading, history and science courses, according to curriculum and school missions posted on school websites.
Curriculum for Central Christian School, a Fort Wayne private school that received more than $328,000 in state-funded vouchers during the 2013-14 school year, includes several faith-based texts used by students in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the school’s website.
Julie Smith, school administrator at Central Christian, said her staff works hard to look at all aspects of a child’s growth.
“Our kids are prepared to take the test, but it’s more than that. We’re preparing them for everyday life, and the curriculum we use teaches them to be thinkers,” she said.
A Beka, a publisher of Christian curriculum, and Purposeful Design, Christian textbooks for math and science classes, have been part of students’ education and continue to be, she said.
Smith said she has not heard any backlash from parents of voucher students regarding the faith-based curriculum but said parents know what to expect when sending their children to Central Christian School.
A second Fort Wayne school, Blackhawk Christian School, received more than $874,000 in vouchers this year for students enrolled at the elementary and junior-senior high school.
Mark Harmon, secondary principal at Blackhawk Christian, said the school teaches concepts of evolution but not as the only truth.
“We are respectful of other’s beliefs, but we do always fall back on the foundation of the Bible,” Harmon said. “We teach creationism.”
Horizon Christian Academy leaders said students are taught both evolution and creationism, but the school supports creationism.
“We teach both because we want our children to get a well-rounded education. If we leave out a portion of that then they aren’t getting a complete education,” Horizon co-Director Anthony Beasley said.
Eckes, who teaches educational law and policy at Indiana University, said there are many implications of the voucher program that have yet to be challenged - including the curriculum of private schools.
“We can’t teach (creationism) in a science class at a public school or a charter school, but now we’re giving money to voucher schools who are doing that? Is that how we envisioned vouchers to work?” she asked.
State legislation concerning creationism in a public school has already been addressed twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, Eckes said.
In Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, the court invalidated a prohibition on evolution instruction because it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Similarly, in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, the court struck down legislation in Louisiana requiring that creationism and evolution receive equal attention in a public school.
In 2005, a federal district court ruled in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design is not scientific and teaching it in public schools is therefore unconstitutional.
The judge concluded that introducing intelligent design was a route for religious opponents of evolution to get their beliefs introduced into Dover, Pa., schools and to have evolution removed, according to court documents.
Charter schools must also comply with state and federal laws. There have been lawsuits filed in other states including Ohio, Idaho and Wisconsin where the lines between church and state have been blurred, Eckes said.
“Charter schools that are perceived to be promoting or endorsing religion in their schools may be accused of violating the Establishment Clause,” Eckes said.
Yet private schools, vouchers and issues of church and state remain so far untouched, experts said.
In March 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled the state could expand the voucher program because the money is going to families who can use the vouchers as they wish, rather than directly to the schools.
The state removed the cap on the number of slots available for the program, making it easier for low-income families to apply for - and receive - vouchers.
As the program continued to expand, so too did the number of schools accepting voucher students.
During 2011-12, the first year of the program, 241 schools statewide participated. That number increased to 289 for the 2012-13 school year and 313 for the 2013-14 school year.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said most people don’t disapprove of vouchers on principle.
“But when you look at what’s being taught . and what vouchers are supporting through monies that would otherwise be going to public schools, it starts to bother people who were neutral about the issue,” he said.
Lynn said one example is private schools that continue to teach creationism, despite having dozens, if not hundreds, of students enrolled with state-funded vouchers.
“If this were a public school or a charter school that was teaching creationism, I cannot imagine a court would allow it to continue,” he said.
But bringing a case against private schools that continue to teach creationism and intelligent design could be difficult, some experts say.
Charlie Russo, a University of Dayton law professor who has studied voucher programs, said perhaps the greatest challenge could be getting the issue into a courtroom. Russo said although it takes only one person to file a lawsuit, the courts can be selective about who that person must be.
“It becomes an issue of standing, a question that courts go back and forth on. Do I have standing as a taxpayer to challenge it?” Russo said. “That’s not a slam-dunk question. It depends on how it’s framed to the court.”
A parent of a student in one of the schools would have a good chance of winning a court case, he said.
“I don’t see this practice surviving a serious challenge,” Russo said. “To apply these relatively clear principles - can you use public money to essentially pay for what is religious indoctrination - and the answer is pretty clearly no.”
However, parents willing to speak against the school where they have chosen to send their child would be unusual, he added.
“It’s a slippery slope, so now the question is, when and where does it start?” Russo said.