Trojan Textbooks: Beware of Government Bearing Gifts

New Mexico’s Supreme Court is reconsidering a 2015 ruling which ended the state funding of textbooks for private schools. Is this good news?

As a publisher of textbooks produced specifically for Catholic schools, I am conflicted in answering the question. On the one hand, state money provides a large well of cash for schools to much more easily make a decision to upgrade textbooks. After all, most of our schools are woefully budget challenged. Money to alleviate the strain is a welcome relief to those schools, I am sure. On the other hand, two problems peek out of the public funds trough. One is the looming “strings attached.” We wait for the string to be pulled, and wonder what it means for a school to keep following the money on the string – what do they have to compromise? The second problem is becoming dependent on the funding source to the point of having it dictate a school’s buying decisions, even if not necessary.

The positive side seems obvious. Catholic parents pay tuition, but also pay their fair share for public education. It is only right that some of those funds come back to benefit the educational process of their own children. It is also for the good of the state and society that Catholic schools exist, for they educate well, they form a more acute conscience-guided citizen, and they save the states billions of dollars in education spending. Archbishop Chaput offers this statistic: “Catholic and other non-public schools currently save Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $4 billion every year.”

Imagine what would happen if all those schools were to close. Tens of thousands of students, $4 billion dollars worth, would show up on the doorstep of the public schools and the state would have to educate them, with not a dime of additional resources from the public, because they already receive taxes from everyone. It would break the system! And so, it seems like sound business sense for the state education funds to keep that small trickle of good will dollars going into the private schools. Curricular aid is a perfect place to do so. Textbook assistance can provide a small but important benefit, based on a per child formula, which ensures the benefit really follows the child.

The Church has repeatedly called for governments, in justice, to aid Catholic schools in some of the expense of educating children. She realizes the state has no obligation to fund religious education, as such, but she claims there is the whole other element of education, the so-called secular subjects, which the state has a vested interest in. Again, to paraphrase Archbishop Chaput, the value to our society that a good education provides, no matter who is giving it, is priceless. For this reason, it seems that states should follow New Mexico’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 case, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, in which it sided with a Lutheran school being able to access state funds that were made available to upgrade the safety of its playground. New Mexico saw that a basic human need was being met, even if it was on the grounds of a church.

There are other ways to look at this whole issue, however, such as from a perspective of fundamental anthropology, or liberty. Government funding has become increasingly tied to a secular, anti-religious ideological agenda. One must be very wary of moving in the direction of government funding. A common argument of advocates on all sides of the aisle is that the secular subjects are just that, secular, and not subject to ideology, so it is fine for the state to fund those books. We have our history textbooks funded by a few states due to this very reasoning.

In a recent Catholic News Agency article on the New Mexico case, Eric Baxter of the Becket Law Group stated in a perfectly well-meaning way, “A science textbook is a science textbook no matter whose shelf it’s on.” The problem is that this is not true! A science textbook is not just a science textbook. Nor is a history book just a history book. To assert, or even accept the notion that publishers like Pearson, Glencoe or Prentice Hall do not have an agenda is either a lie or terribly naïve. They do have an agenda, even an ideology, and they push it.

The standard mainstream science textbook is written from a mechanistic world view. This is flawed science because the world is not mechanistic. One can be a pure and excellent scientist and still acknowledge God, creation, and the beauty of His stamp on the world. In fact, many of the greatest scientists in history were deeply religious – many of them monks and priests. They became so interested in science, and so advanced in discovery because they wanted to understand God’s creation even better, and reveal the gifts He had locked in the intricacies of His world.

Similarly, an honest historian cannot tell history without a significant part of the story being wound up with the Church, and religious motivations for discovery, improvements of economy and government, and yes, some not-so-rosy things, too. But to write the Church’s involvement largely out of history is profoundly poor scholarship. Yet that is what they do. The Church is written out, and Ellen DeGeneres is written in, along with Harvey Milk, Jose Sarria and Gavin Newsom. These are prominent characters in the new lower elementary social studies books in California. These characters are important to history because of their stand for “gay rights”. Of all the stories to share with our children about the great arc of history, are these the ones my seven or eight year old really need to be learning? And yet, this is what we get when we follow the state textbook.

What have we done? We have traded our liberty to teach truth and form our children in right teaching, for free textbooks. Beware of states bearing gifts.

If, as in the case of a few states, your state will fund textbooks such as the Catholic Textbook Project’s history series, by all means, use those funds. That is a right and proper use of the citizens’ taxes. Just be ready to also pay for good, true and beautiful materials by yourself if the state stops funding such products. After all, most Catholic schools in the country do not benefit from state funding of textbooks anyway, and they still find ways to pay for it. It is a nice perk if you have it but please do not let it prevent you from having a textbook that is in line with the core principles of our mission of Catholic education. Sometimes liberty comes at a cost!

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