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Opinion | Should States Be Allowed to Spend Public Money on Religious Educations?

Before the Civil War, many Southern states had anti-literacy laws intended to keep the enslaved population in not only physical, but also mental, captivity. These laws were passed in response to the activities of Black preachers such as Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, who preached a message of liberation rooted squarely in the Bible. Fearful that their message might spread, Southern legislatures made it a crime to teach slaves to read — even to read the Bible.

At the end of the war, the Union government faced the challenge of helping set the freedmen on their way to self-determination. This was no small task, however, given that at most only about 10 percent of the liberated population was literate.

To tackle this challenge, the federal government, through the Freedmen’s Bureau, partnered with Northern organizations to establish schools for the newly liberated in the South. The bureau provided financial assistance to facilitate these educational efforts, and most schools were established by Northern missionary societies. These religious educators fervently desired to help the freedmen deliver themselves from bondage through academic and spiritual support.

The work of those educators has had a lasting impact on the Black community.

But even the heroic efforts of these educators could not fully meet the daunting challenge of ensuring that Black children had access to the same educational opportunity as their white brothers and sisters. In cities and rural communities across the country, Black students have for decades been failed by a public school system that assigns children to schools by ZIP code (read: by wealth), rather than the actual needs of the child.

From a policy perspective, opponents of school choice complain that it diverts taxpayer dollars from public schools so that some students can receive a religious education, and that it further weakens already struggling public schools.

But the fact is that students whose families are not rich enough to move to another school district or to pay tuition at a private school are trapped in their assigned public school — no matter how bad, no matter how segregated.

Yet, as in the post-bellum South, there are religious schools ready to help meet the educational and spiritual needs of these children. And in many parts of the country, government is empowering parents to select such schools. The federal government, for example, funds the Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income families in the District of Columbia. A large majority of students who receive aid under the program are Black, and a large majority of the schools they select are religious. Similar programs are providing opportunity for children in Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans and other cities.

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