Mehmet Oz proposes to send federal education dollars to pay for religious schools

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The Pennsylvania Republican Senate nominee wants to divert state and federal funds to parochial school vouchers.

Pennsylvania Senate Republican nominee Mehmet Oz wants both the federal government and all 50 states to pour public money into religious schools. He says, using a term from estate planning for the movement of assets, that "decanting the public system" would improve education, though there is little evidence for this theory.

Oz is running against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's open seat in the November midterm election.

In an Oct. 5 appearance on the Hugh Hewitt Show, repeating talking points he's used many times in recent weeks, Oz said that if elected, he would back legislation to spend federal funds to pay for more children to be educated at parochial and private schools and pressure states to do the same.

And we also, I believe, need to create a fund at the federal level to squeeze and push states to allow parents to choose parochial schools for their children. I'll give you an example. The [Roman Catholic] archdiocese here in Philadelphia had 32,000 K-8 kids in school. It costs about $4,000 to educate one of these children. Right, so, that's fantastic, it's inexpensive, all these kids read at grade level, pretty much, they're taught values, civics, it's important. I would argue we should double that. And the archdiocese agrees. They could take twice as many kids. Why wouldn't we provide stipends to help parents who don't have the means to get their kids educated, in a way that those children can enjoy the land of plenty, the land of opportunity which America's always represented?

Oz made similar comments at an Oct. 3 Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner. Noting that Pennsylvania and 20 other states offer tax credits to help parents send their kids to private and charter schools, Oz proposed a national system and again proposed having taxpayers pay the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to educate more students.

"It's a great solution. They could take twice as many kids," Oz said. "If we could just put $4,000 into the hands of parents and allow them to take those opportunities, we are making it better for everybody and we're decanting the public system. I don't know why you wouldn't want to do that."

An Oz campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this story.

Though the First Amendment prohibits the government from making laws regarding "an establishment of religion," the conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June that if states offer any private school funding, they must make that money available to religious private schools too. But states currently are not required to fund private schools unless they choose to do so.

According to the advocacy group EdChoice, 16 states currently have some form of school voucher programs that allow parents to take some public school funds and use them to pay for some or all of the tuition at a religious or secular private school. In Pennsylvania and 20 other states, individuals can receive special tax credits for donating to scholarship funds for private schools, effectively subsidizing those programs.

But education advocates caution that using taxpayer funds to pay for private education is harmful to public schools and does little to help kids in either situation.

"Voucher programs redirect taxpayer dollars from public schools to pay for private educational uses. Repackaged under different names, private school vouchers all function to undermine public education and publicly subsidize private education," the Pennsylvania School Boards Association noted on its website.

The nonprofit also noted that "studies of voucher programs across the country have found that students who participate in private school voucher programs fare worse academically than students educated in public schools"; that these plans "siphon millions of dollars from school districts, many that are already under-resourced, to benefit private schools"; and that private schools lack the accountability, transparency, and standards of public schools.

A 2017 report by the Brookings Institution examined studies in the District of Columbia, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio and found that "on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools."

In addition to questions about efficacy, many groups have raised concerns about taxpayer money being given to religious groups.

"Private school vouchers are discriminatory, ineffective and wrong," Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the American Independent Foundation. "They violate our country's constitutional promise of religious freedom because they force taxpayers to pay for religious education, often at private schools that have discriminatory policies. Repeated studies have proven that private school vouchers don't work — they don't improve academic outcomes. Public money should fund public schools, not private, religious schools."

Teachers across Pennsylvania have sounded the alarm about Oz's proposals.

Arthur Steinberg is the president of AFT Pennsylvania, the state's American Federation of Teachers affiliate, which represents 36,000 educators and other public employees.

"MAGA Republicans like Mehmet Oz want to create two separate systems of education. One for the haves and one for the have nots," Steinberg told the American Independent Foundation in an email. "They want to destroy our secular public school system to prop up unaccountable, for-profit and religious institutions who will, in turn, charge families even more for tuition, putting a quality education out of reach of most students in Pennsylvania."

He added: "Oz and everyone running with him in the Republican Party is dead set on taking us back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education, when public education in America was both separate and unequal."

Chris Lillienthal is a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents another 178,000 public education professionals and which is backing Fetterman in the race.

"Private school tuition voucher programs take limited resources and funding away from students in public schools and give them to private schools with little to no accountability," Lillienthal told the American Independent Foundation. "Very often, these programs are structured in a way where students in the neediest public school districts lose the most educational opportunities. This is a major concern for Pennsylvania educators and families."

He added: "Dr. Oz's statement is a soundbite, not a proposal."

Fetterman has made supporting public education a top priority of his Senate campaign.

"In Washington, I'll fight for universal pre-k and childcare, and I'll make sure our public schools have the funding they need so our teachers aren't shouldering so much of a burden," Fetterman notes on his campaign website.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.