I am opposed to spending public money on private schools for many reasons. I am in agreement with many who are stating their opposition to vouchers, as currently under consideration in a special session of the Texas Legislature called by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Public funding of private schools through vouchers is in direct conflict with the First Amendment. You may say vouchers are not establishing any one religion, but vouchers definitely give advantage to certain religions.
In Texas, 34% of the private schools are Christian, with 22% of those Catholic and 12% Baptist. I am a retired Baptist pastor, and it seems to me Baptists and Catholics are at an unfair advantage in Texas if the governor’s voucher program is established.
Some might say I am anti-Catholic; nothing could be further from the truth. I always have believed Catholics are mainstream Christians. When I was a pastor in Knoxville, Tenn., I developed a wonderful relationship with the Catholic priest at the church less than a mile from our church. Father Joe and I participated in a marriage ceremony in our church and a funeral in his church. For three consecutive years, we had annual events in which we had joint worship services followed by question-and-answer sessions, designed to better inform each other of the things our two churches had in common.
Our Texas governor is Catholic. He is using his bully pulpit to help establish his church. I would be just as opposed if he were a Baptist Christian using his bully pulpit to establish the Baptist church.
My three grandchildren have gone to and are going to a private Christian school. The two grandsons have played football and basketball. I love to watch them play; consequently, I have been to many of the football fields and basketball gymnasiums in the Dallas area. The facilities at most of these private schools are far superior to the facilities of the public schools. I am not opposed to private schools, but I am deeply disturbed by the idea of sending public school money to private schools.
The governor’s voucher program also would put unnecessary pressure on middle class families in Texas. The average income for middle class families in Texas is about $63,000 a year. The governor’s voucher plan would give each student in a private school about $7,000 a year. The average tuition for a private school is about $10,668 a year. If a family wants to send their three children to a private school, it would cost them almost $12,000 a year more than sending them to a free public school. How many middle class families can afford an extra $12,000 a year?
“If private schools accept public money, they ought to live by the same rules as public schools.”
The public schools must educate every child that comes through the doors, be they rich or poor, have disabilities, are bright or have learning issues. They cannot turn anyone away. Private schools can accept or turn away any child they desire to do so. If private schools accept public money, they ought to live by the same rules as public schools.
However, the primary reason I am opposed to the governor’s voucher program is the damage it will do to the church. The church in America is in trouble. The last 12 years of my working career, I served with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We hired a church planter. Phil had a passion for starting new churches. I heard him say on several occasions, “We must start new churches because every year more than 1,000 Protestant churches close their doors for good.”
That was then; this is now. Many more churches have not recovered from the pandemic. For the first time in our history, more than 30% of our population say they are “nones,” meaning they prefer no religious affiliation. The church is in trouble.
One summer I did a pulpit exchange with Andy Baker, pastor of Downton Baptist Church in Downton, England. He and his family lived in our house, and he preached in the church I served. My family stayed in his house, and I preached in the English church. One Sunday I listened in on a conversation as the English were saying goodbye to an American couple who had been in their church for three years. The Americans were expressing their appreciation for the English hospitality.
Then one of the Brits asked, “What will you miss most about England?” The departing couple replied, “We will miss the religious education our children received in the English school.”
The Anglican Church is the official church of England, so the schools start each day with a Bible reading and prescribed prayer. The English Baptists were horrified. They said that practice was very harmful to the Christian movement in England. They explained that the parents thought the children received enough religious training in school, therefore there was no need to take them to church.
Do we really want to follow that pattern in Texas? The church is in trouble. Don’t cause more trouble by passing a voucher program that will cause the parents of children in Christian schools to believe they no longer need to take their children to church.
Bill Bruster is a retired pastor of multiple Southern Baptist churches, the last of which was First Baptist Church of Abilene, Texas. He was instrumental in launching the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and spent the latter part of his career as a field coordinator for CBF. He lives in Dallas, where he is a member of Wilshire Baptist Church and serves on the board of Gaston Christian Center.