A SWORD CUTS BOTH WAYS
For decades, the religious right has gained access to tax dollars by filling a niche in the education system. In addressing an ‘at risk’ population among children, these religious activists have made great strides toward the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.
It’s a clever end-run around the law. In Arkansas until 2012, a quietly growing swarm of such preschools illegally utilized millions of tax dollars for programs that began each day with prayer and Bible study. (Which they have never been required to pay back.) Classroom activities included coloring images of Biblical scenes, singing hymns, and the occasional time-out at the principal’s office where the recalcitrant child might be prayed over to cast out the demons causing his/her unruly behavior.
Tipped off by thoughtful journalists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) threatened a lawsuit against the state. Specifically cited in the complaint was the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool at West Fork. The Arkansas Times, arguably the state’s only non-rightwing media, reported that “According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured that staff members will ‘strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.’ The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught ‘the word of God’ so that they can ‘spread the word of God to others.’”
Outrageous not only because the preschool blatantly advertised its religious intent in its name and literature without the state blinking an eye before handing over tax dollars, its owner/operator Justin Harris also served as an elected representative in the state’s legislature. And he wasn’t the only elected official sworn to uphold the Constitution who grabbed illegal tax dollars hand over fist. Similar preschools operated under the leadership of Johnny Key, also a legislator and – incredibly – in 2015 designated by the Republican governor Asa Hutchinson as head of the Department of Education, even though Hutchinson had to massage the state’s rules about qualifications for the department head because Key didn’t meet them
Specifically targeted by religious preschools in order to boost their standing for ever greater grant funding, potential ‘students’ are rounded up from problematic environments.
The ABC Program serves educationally deprived children, age birth through 5 years, excluding a kindergarten program. The Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program serves children ages 3 and 4 years from families with gross income not exceeding 200% of the federal poverty level.
Eligible children for the ABC program shall have at least one of the following characteristics:
Family with gross income not exceeding 200% of FPL
Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening
Parents without a high school diploma or GED
Eligible for services under IDEA
Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces)
Income eligible for Title I programs
Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth
Limited English Proficiency
Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction
Parent has history of abuse of neglect Or is a victim of abuse or neglect.
Age-eligible child who falls into one of the following categories shall be exempt from family income requirements:
Foster child § Child with an incarcerated parent § Child in the custody of/living with a family member other than mother or father § Child with immediate family member arrested for or convicted of drug-related offenses § Child with a parent activated for overseas military duty
Further enticement for struggling parents is that ABC funded programs provide free child care and pick-up/delivery services for children. What low income parent would not rush to place their child in such a program whether or not they want their child indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian religion?
State employees at the Department of Human Services, which oversees this particular realm of education and tax dollars and in charge of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, could not account for how the money was spent by these schools, citing chaotic bookkeeping methods. The state did not require any particular accounting method. The state then or now does not know whether tax dollars granted to preschools and other educational programs serving ‘at risk’ children actually are used for that purpose, only requiring that grants be kept in a separate bank account.
Despite the wimpy crackdown in 2012, random yet infrequent inspections by state enforcement personnel lack the ability to determine whether prayers, hymn singing, and exorcising of demons might yet continue, stopping only the moment an inspector walks through the door.