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He who pays the piper, next chapter

Back in 2013 I wrote a post called "He Who Pays the Piper," about the dangers of accepting public money in Christian schools and "virtual charter" home schooling.

It might have been around that time (my timeline here is fuzzy) that something new came to my local area: The homeschool/public school partnerships.

First I'll tell you what I thought these were. Then I'll tell you what they really were. I thought that these partnership classes were avowedly, openly public school classes, mostly (at least) taught on public school property, but simply taught at unusual times and "geared" toward home schoolers. I thought that perhaps they removed content that home schoolers would find objectionable and/or chose teachers who were sympathetic to home schooling. But it never occurred to me that they were anything other than openly secular, public school classes.

The coming of "the partnership" to my local area was viewed with suspicion and alarm by many of my home schooling friends. They viewed it as the camel's nose in the tent to get home schoolers to secularize their programs and give up control of their own children's education.

I thought of myself as the voice of moderation, despite my usual rampaging conservatism. Asked, "What do you think of the Partnership?" I would usually say this: "Well, they're public school classes, and the most important thing is that the parents make sure that they are still legally considered to be home schooling their children. This means that they need to be sure that these are enrichment courses rather than core classes. The kids need to be getting more than half of their core education work from their parents. Other than that, parents should just monitor the classes each year to make sure they consider them worthwhile, that the content is appropriate, and that the kids aren't making friends they have a problem with or being influenced by values they disapprove of. If they want to send their kids to take an art class or something at a public school part time, it's their business, but they should keep an eye on it."

Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, I was wrong.

Unbeknownst to me, from the very outset, the Partnership was something far different from what I believed.

To explain how it really worked, I need to explain what home school co-ops are. I'm going to use the word "co-op" though some might quibble with the term when applied to organizations where the parents themselves don't do the teaching. But I'll use the term for convenience and explain what it means. Broadly speaking, a home schooling co-op of the kind I'm talking about here comes about when parents band together, secure a venue (often a church), and start an organization in which their children can receive classes and tutoring in areas that are best taught in groups (such as choirs or bands) or in areas that the parents may feel less qualified to teach (such as higher mathematics or chemistry). The organization can also offer classes that parents buy for their kids on an a la carte basis so that the children make more friends, feel part of a community, and so forth. These co-ops usually meet just once a week, offering their classes all day at the venue on that day of the week. The fee structure varies. Some organizations take all the fees and hire teachers and pay them. Others take only the administrative portion of the fees, set a standardized per-student, per-class fee, and that fee is paid directly by the parent to the teacher. Teachers still have to be, in a looser sense, hired (i.e. approved) by the organization.

Administrative duties, planning, and fund-raising are carried out by parent volunteers whose children are in the program. Some parents who feel less communitarian are allowed to pay a fee to get out of being on committees. The kids pick up the chairs and tables and otherwise help to keep the place going.

Some are multi-subject, while others are dedicated to a particular type of activity, such as music or drama. Here are links to four such organizations in my immediate area. (More informal co-ops also exist, what one might call "co-ops proper," wherein nobody pays anybody money except for materials or necessary expenses; parents just get together in ad hoc groups and share teaching duties on subjects where they have a mutual interest or certain parents have expertise. But that's not the kind that is relevant to this post.)

These co-ops are a great thing. They allow home schooling parents to get many of the benefits of a private school without as much of a time and money commitment, and only as far as they want. They can choose just one class or many classes. The whole set-up rejoices the heart of any free-market advocate, illustrating as it does the limitless creativity of human beings at coming up with just the educational product they desire. And the organizations themselves are excellent examples of those mediating institutions of civil society that conservatives consider (rightly) so important.

Oh, and, by the way: Though they don't have to be, in my experience co-op organizations have been explicitly Christian.

Enter the Partnership.

As it turns out, the Partnership has funneled money to Christian organizations and co-ops from the outset. The public schools get to keep part of the state funds from enrolling home schooled students part-time in the Partnership, even though the students aren't actually being taught by or at the public schools at all. The parents get help with the co-op fees. And the co-op is able to enroll or maintain families who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it.

If I had known this, alarm bells would have been going off from the beginning, for I would have realized that these were not avowedly, openly, unambiguously public school classes. They were ostensibly Christian classes taught at Christian organizations and seen by parents as part of passing on a Christian worldview in the subject matter and in the organization as a whole.

Moreover, being a bit of a legal geek, I could have told anyone who asked that Michigan state law prohibits funneling state funds to religious schools or religious classes. In fact, the Michigan State Constitution contains an explicit anti-voucher provision for religious education that would doubtless be taken to apply here.

Now, to be as fair as possible, I believe that the local public school administrators were working in good faith with the home schoolers and didn't realize that they were breaking the law by paying for Christian classes.

So it went for several years, with some parents very opposed just on principle and others saying that they couldn't see anything wrong with it. For the co-op organizations, it seemed to be working out okay, and there was little to no interference from the state.

In the summer of 2017, that all changed. Suddenly someone in Lansing woke up to what was happening. State funds were going to pay for "partnership classes" that were religious in nature or carried out by religious institutions. So the school districts were strictly instructed to put a stop to this, and just about the time school was beginning this past fall, the co-ops started learning that new restrictions would apply.

At one organization, which I won't explicitly identify, the first the parents learned of all of this was when quite suddenly extra "prayer meetings" were being announced between and before classes. How could this be a bad thing? Was this just a case of "moar prayer" for its own sake? Upon inquiry, the truth came out: Due to new Partnership regulations, all teachers had been ordered or would be ordered not to pray as part of class. To make up for it, student-led, voluntary prayer groups were being made available.

This was a bombshell for parents. Some students first found out about the new regulations when they tried to ask for prayer requests at the beginning of class, based on experience in past years, and were told sadly by the teacher that this was no longer allowed by state regulations. State regulations? On their private, explicitly Christian organization?

You bet.

This post, from the Michigan state home school organization, contains a copy of a memo that was sent out to co-ops accepting Partnership funds.

Other co-ops with a different fee structure were able to take a different approach. They have left it up to the individual tutors, since the Partnership dollars do not go to the organization's overhead fees but only and directly to the tutors. (The state gives the money to the parents, who use it to pay.) So the Partnership contacted the tutors individually to quiz them: Is your class religious in nature? Do you pray in class? Is this part of the regular content of your class, or is it entirely voluntary? Is it teacher-led or student-led? I'm proud to say (at least on the basis of hearsay) that virtually all of the tutors openly told the regulators that of course they reserve the right to carry out teacher-led prayer in class and to make the class explicitly Christian and that, if this jeopardizes the money that some parents are using to pay for the class, so be it. They aren't going to change. One organization has (I'm told) asked any tutors who undertake explicit changes to their course content or activities in order to accept Partnership funds to let the board know what changes they have made so that the board can review them and decide what to do from there.

But as for the first co-op, it has, for the moment, apparently caved in completely. It remains unclear whether there will be teacher-led prayer at the twice-yearly programs to which everyone invites friends and relatives. But legally, it probably won't be allowed if the Partnership thinks to forbid it. Parents, especially those who have sacrificed to pay out-of-pocket all along, refusing state money, who have been deeply involved in this explicitly Christian organization for years, and who have benefited from the teachers' Christian leadership for their children, are deeply saddened and unsure what to do next. All the more unsure since they learned of this change only after paying their fees for the new semester. The acceptance of state funds by some families has forcibly secularized the organization for all families.

The regulatory implications, especially for an organization that employs its teachers under the organization's umbrella and takes Partnership funds, are vast. Employment regulations will almost certainly apply. "LGBT" issues can hardly be avoided long-term. Those that merely allow their individual tutors to take the funds but do not accept them for their own operating expenses are hopefully in a better position, at least for the moment, though I suppose even that could change.

When, when will people ever learn? He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Comments (3)

Those that merely allow their individual tutors to take the funds but do not accept them for their own operating expenses are hopefully in a better position, at least for the moment, though I suppose even that could change.

Well, the state can try to mandate KGB-LQZNVXJPDQ friendly rules on any entity it wants to force into subservience, whether it is taking state money or not. It is, surely, easier if the entity is taking state money, but not doing so doesn't present an absolute barrier. CA legislators tried to pass a law that would have done this (to all schools, not just ones with public money), and though it was defeated (so far) by political opponents, it wasn't because of worries that it was not constitutional.

That said, yes: if you are getting state money, you better believe that the state is going to try to impose state government "values" on you. In one sense, it's just "good" accountability with your money: don't spend it undermining your own values. The state is secular, so don't spend secular money supporting anti-secular beliefs. Right? Do you get it now: the state religion now is Secularism, not a hands-off Christian non-denominationalist pluralism?

CA legislators tried to pass a law that would have done this (to all schools, not just ones with public money), and though it was defeated (so far) by political opponents, it wasn't because of worries that it was not constitutional.

I *think* this is strictly incorrect. My recollection (which I'm willing to be corrected on) is that the CA regulators were honing in on California colleges whose students receive any state aid, such as grants or loans. The Christian colleges don't get the money directly but do get it indirectly through the funding to the students. (Much like the Partnership, actually!) As I recall, when this was fought out, the concern was that the schools would have to tell their students to come entirely without state aid of any kind if the legislation went through (and if the schools didn't cave in), and many of the schools believed they could not survive financially in that situation.

That's how I remember it, anyway.

Certainly legislators can *try* to coerce anybody to do anything. But right now in the U.S. the free exercise clause of the 1st amendment is pretty helpful on that, and so is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, if the entity is not a commercial entity (e.g., if it's a non-profit, expressly Christian organization), and if money is not involved. If the entity is either just an ordinary organization engaging in profit (when the only hope is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bruised reed) or if the entity takes government funds either directly or indirectly (through its students), then religious freedom can be seriously curtailed.

I just did a little quick research on the whole issue of Catholic charities and adoptions by homosexuals. It appears that even that was tied to funding. The Catholic adoption agencies had developed a funding relationship with the state, and it was on that basis that the state claimed they had to follow non-discrimination rules. It *looks* like, had there been no relationship with the state whatsoever, such as funding, etc., the argument would have been harder to make and there would have been more plausibility of success from a religious liberty claim.

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