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On education vouchers and faith-based leadership, Ohio might learn something from Texas

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On education vouchers and faith-based leadership, Ohio might learn something from Texas

Sep 29, 2023 | 4:30 am ET
By Denis Smith
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On education vouchers and faith-based leadership, Ohio might learn something from Texas
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Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, oversees the Senate session on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

You read that headline correctly.

It may come as a shock to readers to know that with all the issues confronting Ohio, it hasn’t been listed in recent surveys as the worst place to live and work. That honor, according to a new CNBC survey, goes to Texas.

The survey methodology targeted a range of issues facing the Lone Star State, with reproductive rights, health care, and voting rights identified as leading deficits that are adversely affecting the state’s citizens.

Noticeably absent from the CNBC list of top issues was education, which might come as a surprise to observers who have long deplored the low per-pupil spending for schools in one of the fastest growing states in the nation. 

But there might be another reason why education didn’t pull Texas even deeper into the deficit column. As of now, and unlike Ohio, Texas does not have a universal education voucher program. In this year alone, Ohio joined 14 other states that have passed such legislation which allows taxpayers to pick up the tab for tuition at private and religious schools. 

But universal vouchers haven’t happened yet in Texas, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s strong advocacy of spreading public money around to unaccountable non-public schools.

Opposition to vouchers comes from the state’s vast rural areas, where there are few private and religious schools to choose from. That same anti-voucher argument was made in Ohio during the past legislative session, where families in rural counties would not have the same level of access for those living in metropolitan areas.

But if there is one person in the Buckeye State who almost singlehandedly pushed through the voucher bill despite spirited opposition, it would be Senate President Matt Huffman, whom Statehouse watchers have described as the bully- in-chief of Ohio politics and an aggressive champion of conveying public funds to religious schools.

By contrast, if there is one person in Texas who has been a principled leader in championing public schools and opposing vouchers for religious schools, the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, leader of Pastors for Texas Children, would be that positive force.

What a contrast. In Ohio, we have a schoolyard bully in the person of Matt Huffman. In Texas, we have a principled pastor using a bully pulpit, a la Theodore Roosevelt, who popularized that term. But let’s not conflate the two terms, as Pastor Johnson respects constitutional limits, unlike the Ohio Senate President.

As a bully, Huffman respects nothing, and where the word principled is not followed by the term leadership. One specific example of Huffman’s lack of respect for societal norms and conventions is the Ohio Constitution and Article VI, Section 2, which clearly states a prohibition against the use of public funds to support private and religious schools:

The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise, as, with the income arising from the school trust fund, will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state; but no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this state.

By contrast, Pastor Johnson and his organization on September 19 released this statement opposing vouchers for religious schools in Texas. Here are some key excerpts from the statement of Pastors for Texas Children in opposition to vouchers:

Vouchers are a clear violation of the American ideal of separation of church and state.

In an unprecedented violation of God’s law of religious liberty and the American doctrine of the separation of church and state, Governor Greg Abbott this afternoon called on ministers and pastors to use God’s pulpit to push his private school voucher program.

The use of public tax dollars to subsidize religious instruction is a sin against God.

Pastors for Texas Children stands strong for the universal education of all God’s children, provided, and protected by the public trust. We oppose all attempts to privatize it for sectarian, religious, and political reasons.

As we examine the use of the bully pulpit by a Texas pastor in providing principled leadership compared to unconstitutional and unprincipled bullying by Ohio’s senate leader, the behavior of Ohio’s Catholic bishops in joining Republicans in supporting an assault on the Ohio Constitution through their advocacy of Issue One in the recent special election is a study in contrasts with the Texas pastors.

Those critical of the church’s role in trying to make it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution and thus block a popular abortion measure on the November ballot see its strong working relationship with Ohio’s Republican leadership. That relationship resulted in a gift, the universal education voucher program funding unaccountable religious schools, embedded in the new state budget. 

And the constitutional prohibition for using public funds otherwise earmarked for public schools to support religious schools?  Never mind Article VI, Section 2. 

We can kind of do what we want,” Huffman famously said in 2022.

And he does. Clearly these words depict the image of the bully-in-chief, intent on destroying public education regardless of a clear constitutional mandate to use public funds to support a “system [note the singular form] of common schools.” 

So while it is true that Texas was ranked last in the recent CNBC survey, it has allowed us to view the contrasts with Ohio as seen in its political and religious leaders. Greg Abbott is clearly the bully in Texas, and Matt Huffman plays that role in Ohio.

But we also see differences in religious leadership, where a group of courageous Texas pastors has taken a position found in their organization’s vision statement:

Pastors for Texas Children believes that public education is a human right, a constitutional guarantee, and a central part of God’s plan for human flourishing. When this sacred trust and provision of God’s common good comes under attack by the forces of privatization, we respond with prayer, service, and advocacy.

This vision is in sharp contrast with that of Ohio’s Catholic hierarchy, which has been working diligently with the state Republican leadership to scoop up public money for private purposes. 

Again, never mind Article VI, Section 2.

While Ohio does not have a faith-based organization like Pastors for Texas Children to advocate for the separation of public and private monies for schools, Vouchers Hurt Ohio, a group of nearly 200 Ohio school districts, has united to sue the state and stop the unconstitutional voucher scheme. Fair minded Ohioans should pray for the success of groups like VHO who wish to honor constitutional government.

In the meantime, the blatant sabotage of public education, a slow-motion trainwreck precipitated by Matt Huffman and his church allies, is underway in Ohio. In the name of the rule of law and the constitution, let us pray for their total and unmitigated defeat. 

But let us also pray for the success of Pastors for Texas Children. Despite the likes of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Ted Cruz, there are good people of faith working hard to preserve and protect democracy and constitutional government, and in every neighborhood, the public school is the most visible form of community and democracy.

Ohio pastors, let us learn and model civic virtue as practiced by a group of Texas pastors.

Amen.