Alan J. Singer: The Wall of Separation

Jun 15, 2015 by

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

An Interview with Alan J. Singer: The Wall of Separation – and Support for Private, Parochial or Religious Schools

by Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Alan, you have posted yet another thought provoking piece in the Huff Post – for our readers could you provide the link?

The Huffington Post link is “Why Andy Cuomo Attacks the ‘Wall of Separation’.”

2) Now it seems the your illustrious Governor, wants to “knock down the wall” of separation of church and state, by allowing tax credits. How would this work?

Andy Cuomo can’t do it openly, the principle of separation of church and state is too well established and he is after all a Democrat, if in name only. The attack is an end around play. Instead of giving money directly to private and religious schools as a payback for political support, Cuomo is pushing hard to win support in the state legislature for a bill that would permit “donors” to religious and private schools to write off the full amount as a tax credit. The Alliance for Quality Education estimates the tax credit could allow wealthy donors to private and religious schools to be reimbursed by the state for up to 90% of a donation of $1 million.

If the tax credit is approved, expect that parents would no longer pay tuition. All children would get “scholarships.” Parents would just make required tax credit “donations” and get reimbursed for the ersatz payments by the State of New York. Families with incomes as high as $550,000 a year would be eligible for the tax credit.

3) Historically, Thomas Jefferson, in one of his famous letters was somewhat clear on the issue. What exactly did he say?

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association where he argued that the “act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” had established a “wall of separation between church and state.” While Jefferson’s letter does not carry the authority of law, in 1878 the United States Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States declared that Jefferson’s position ” may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment.” This interpretation of the First Amendment was affirmed by the Supreme Court repeatedly including in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Engel v. Vitale (1962), and Epperson v. Arkansas (1968).

4) I have read about the life and times of Thomas Jefferson, and regard him as a first rate scholar. But what would he say now about the state of public education in America?

I am a historian and teacher so I am always careful about “what-if” statements. A lot of different people claim Jefferson for their own side because he believed in human equality and liberty, at least for White men, but he also feared over-reach by a powerful central government.

What is most pertinent here are Jefferson’s views on education. In 18784, Jefferson wrote: “experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large . . .” He also argued that the public “should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.”

I wish political and business leaders today shared Jefferson’s commitment to a well-educated citizenry. In a later letter, Jefferson actually endorsed a special tax that would set aside money for public education. In the letter, written in 1816, Jefferson added: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

So we have someone committed to a “wall of separation” between church and state and public support for education as the best defense of liberty. A 21st century Thomas Jefferson would be fighting to improve public education, not to undermine it with tax caps on public schools and tax credits to private and religious schools. I think he would also be revolted by the idea that an elected public official is hammering away at the “wall of separation” and undermining public education.

5) I see two or three issues here – one is that parents who want their kids to go to a parochial school, or yeshiva, or private school – should pay the tuition. But should they not get reimbursed somewhat for their efforts?

I am not sure what you mean by efforts? The Roman Catholic Church schools enroll non-Catholic students whose families are not interested in Catholic education. In New York private and religious schools have drawn some of the better performing young people out of the public system and left the public system vulnerable to attack and inadequately funded. In that respect they have been a divisive force promoting racial and class segregation, not a positive good. When I was a boy in the Bronx my parents wanted me to have a religious education. I went to the local public school during the day and Hebrew school in the evening. No one expected the government to pick up the tab for religious training. If the government has extra money, instead of tax credits, it should go to improve public education.

According to the New York State Constitution, “The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” Not only that, but the state constitution explicitly states “Neither the state nor any subdivision thereof, shall use its property or credit or any public money, or authorize or permit either to be used, directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection, of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught.”

This sounds to be like the people of New York State understand that public money is for public schools, even if Andy Cuomo and his allies do not.

6) A second issue is simply safety – some parents want their kids in a private school – as they may have heard about the chaos in the public schools – and fear for their kids safety (Since I once taught in the South Bronx, I do know about these things).

Let’s amend this. ALL parents want their children in safe and functioning schools where they learn and are prepared for the future. That is what public schools are for. It is the Governor’s and the Legislature’s responsibility to provide that education to ALL children, not just those whose families can get them into private or parochial schools.

In 2006, after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York case was pending for thirteen years and millions of New York State’s children had attended under-funded schools, the state’s Court of Appeals ruled that New York was violating constitutional right of students to a “sound and basic education.” In 2007 the governor and state legislature enacted a new funding formula to comply with the Court of Appeals CFE ruling. But the plan has been substantially delayed. Today, the state is behind $4.9 billion in payments to poorer school districts. Shame on Andy Cuomo and the rest of them!

7) A third issue is more rigorous standards and more discipline seems to exist in the private schools. Should parents be seen as consumers – and should philanthropists be allowed to contribute to those private preparatory schools?

There are elite private schools and there are elite public schools. New York City has some of the top public high schools in the country and many of the more affluent suburban districts have schools that rate with the top private schools in the country. In the city, private school families will pull their children out of private schools if they qualify for one of the elite public schools.

The issue is not really schools for the academic elite, but schools for everyone else. The point of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit is that New York State does not provide a quality education for all children. Diverting money to private and religious schools will make the situation worse, not better.

8)  I believe Jefferson said “their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Now, if I want to establish my own religion (call it the Church of Tree Worship) the legislature cannot interfere, as I understand it. Or am I over-interpreting what Jefferson said?

The issue is not whether you can create your own religion, courts have recognized that right, but whether by giving public funds to a religious institution such as a religious school the legislature is providing government support to the religion, which violates the Constitution.

9) Often people contribute to private schools in terms of time, labor, volunteer service. Are you opposed to this type of contribution to a private school? (I could volunteer to coach basketball – it is nowhere near worth a million dollars)

I do not oppose volunteerism. I actively volunteer with a number of groups. You should too. I oppose the destruction of the public school system in New York and the United States by channeling tax dollars away from public schools to private and religious schools.

10) For the record – the First Amendment (and it must be important since it was the FIRST) – what exactly does it say – and what could be interpreted – either pro or con these tax credits?

The key here is the combination of the 1st and 14th amendments. The 1st Amendment only puts legal restrictions on Congress or the federal government. It states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Congress can neither support a religion nor interfere with one. The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War in 1868, extended the principles established in the Bill of Rights to all citizens of the United States and prohibited states from violating these principles. That is why New York State cannot legally establish a religion or directly channel money to religious schools. If it passes, the courts will have to decide if the Cuomo tax credit subterfuge constitutes a violation of this Constitutional principle.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

The issue being debated today not just the separation of church and state. The Cuomo plan would also permit tax credits for donations to secular private schools, something I also strongly oppose. Whatever the Constitution says about government support for religious schools, the bottom line question is “why have public schools at all?”

Public schools, despite their problems, have always been a force for American integration and the shaping of an American nationality, something Jefferson strongly supported. He also championed widespread primary education and feared elite-only education would threaten democracy.

The Cuomo tax credit plan is reminiscent of the creation of White-only academies in the South during the Civil Rights era as Southern Whites tried to keep education racially segregated. Public schools became Black. Private schools were for Whites and still largely are. With the creation of the White-only academies support for public education among White voters in these states collapsed to the bare minimum.

If the Cuomo plan goes through it has the potential to atomize American society even further. We could potentially have large numbers of mini-private and religious schools and micro-segregation. It would have a serious impact on American identity.

As I see it, the Cuomo plan sacrifices public education for personal political advantage. That makes him a detestable politician and to me, a detestable human being.

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  1. Avatar

    “why have public schools at all?”

    We shouldn’t! They have failed us. It’s time to let PARENTS chose where their children should go. It’s PARENTS and SOCIETY that are paying for it,so they deserve the CHOICE of where their kids go! Liberal tyranny must END!

    • Avatar

      That’s unfortunate that you would support a corporate agenda for personal gain. This is not about choice, admit it, its about funneling money from public schools to private pockets. This agenda is racist and classist at its core and you sir should be ashamed!

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