Cyber-charter schools and religious education
posted by Aaron Saiger
I wrote a few days ago about the rise of the cyber-charter school, and its potential to unsettle constitutional and statutory regimes that govern K-12 education. Right now I am finishing off an article that discusses this with respect to religion. A private religious school is not allowed to operate unless it meets state requirements for all private schools, which include minimum standards for the teaching of secular subjects like math and history. But religious schools must bear the cost of that secular instruction, even though their students would receive similar instruction for free were they to enroll in public school. (States may elect to provide various kinds of aid to religious private schools at the margins, but not to the extent of absorbing the costs of secular instruction.) This minimizes interpenetration between the state-funded public school sector and the religious, private-school sector. It also makes religious schooling more expensive than it otherwise would be.
But consider a religious private school that, rather than offering secular education itself, facilitates the enrollment of its students in a state-funded cyber-charter. The instructional program of the cyberschool is completely secular. But many cyber-charters are asynchronous as well as untethered to place; students may log into school when and from where they please. So why not from inside a religious establishment? Under this model, religious school students pursue their secular studies under the physical supervision of religious teachers but the intellectual supervision of the secular charter school operators. The religious school pays for the supervision but the secular one for the teaching. So (and here I am paraphrasing an earlier piece of mine), a religious teacher might work with half the class on some religious topic while the other half, on its own for the moment, engages in secular cyber-study under the same teacher’s passive supervision. Or a cleric might begin a 45-minute English lesson with a prayer—right before secular studies begin—or interrupt a cyber-biology lesson to admonish students that the material that they are covering is a tissue of lies.
The religious school not only saves a fair bit of money by this approach, savings it can pass on to its customers, but it engineers the kind of merger between publicly funded secular education and privately funded religious schooling that our system, until now, has gone to some lengths to prohibit. But I can identify no legal problem with a religious school adopting this strategy. Unlike state aid for secular instruction in religious schools, which raises real risks either of religious schools repurposing secular funds to religious ends or heavy-handed state involvement in quotidian regulation of religious schools’ operations, cyberteaching is 100% secular and under secular state control. Conceptually its use by the religious school is very similar to such a school’s use of a public library, or of state-provided maps or films. Indeed, I think it would be unconstitutional to allow students to log on to cyberschool anywhere and anytime except while under the physical supervision of a religious teacher. It would surely be unconstitutional to prohibit religious teachers from putting their own gloss, on their own time, upon what the students are learning in their secular classes.
But logistically the model is something very new. It creates a religious school whose secular program is state-funded and largely state-directed, but whose scheduling and context is in religious hands.
Short of abolishing cybercharters (which some states have done) can such initiatives be blocked? If not, is that a reason to abolish them? Or might it be acceptable, or even welcome, that the internet can create a new kind of religious pluralism in American education, where secular schooling remains under secular direction but which lacks the firm wall between its pursuit and the acquisition of religious education?