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Port: The school choice bill isn't about religion; it's about empowering parents

"I'm an atheist, and even I'm shocked about the level of anti-religion antipathy this legislation has engendered."

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MINOT, N.D. β€” I'm an atheist, so when it comes to religious schools, I don't have a dog in the hunt.

My family doesn't attend church. My kids attend public school. We aren't interested in sending them to a religious school. I'm sure the academic instruction at those schools is fine, but I'm not interested in the religious curriculum.

If my kids want religion, they can find their own path to it. That's my choice as a parent. It doesn't have to be everybody's choice.

I am dismayed at the antipathy inveighed toward school choice legislation on the cusp of being passed in Bismarck. House Bill 1532 , introduced by Rep. Claire Cory, a Republican from Grand Forks, has passed the House on a 54-40 vote and just got a 4-2 "do pass" recommendation from the Senate's Education Committee.

There are no guarantees it will pass a floor vote in the Senate β€” proposals like this have died many times in the legislature in the past β€” but this one has a good shot. Helping it along is a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling which found that laws prohibiting state aid from flowing to schools with religious affiliations are unconstitutional. The court found, correctly, that school funding programs cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

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North Dakota's state constitution has long had what's called a Blaine amendment , which are bans on funding for "sectarian schools" promoted in the late 19th and early 20th century by anti-Catholic activists.

Modern opponents of school choice have effectively used these amendments in past years to hold off policies they don't like.

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While not all of them are motivated by the same sort of bigotry that inspired these laws in the first place, it's clear, from the reaction to HB 1532 from some quarters right here in North Dakota, that much of the backlash against the bill is rooted in antipathy toward religion.

And, again, that's my perspective as an atheist. My friend and fellow columnist Tony Bender described this legislation as "mandatory tithing," and, with all due respect to Tony, that's not accurate.

This bill isn't about religion. It's about private schools. That most private schools have a religious affiliation β€” if there's one in North Dakota that doesn't, I'm not aware of it β€” is merely circumstantial. This legislation is neutral on the question of religion, which is as it should be. A secular private school would be treated, under this law, the same way a Lutheran or Catholic school would be. And maybe, once we get a school choice program off the ground, we'll see more private schools emerge, including some without a religious affiliation.

Should this bill become law, every school participating would have to be an accredited institution in compliance with all of the laws and regulations our state has for private schools (and homeschoolers aren't included at all). I'm not aware of any deficiencies we have on that front, but I'm open to arguments about the standards we set for private schools, but those aren't an argument against school choice.

North Dakota, generally, has very good public schools. That's certainly the case here in Minot, where I live. But there's nothing wrong with bringing some flexibility to the way our state provides education. We should always operate well-funded, and competently staffed public schools, but why not empower parents to try out private schools too?

What are we so afraid of? That a child might be exposed to some ideas we disapprove of?

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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