In 2001, Betsy DeVos famously told a group of wealthy Christian philanthropists that her work on education reform would “advance God’s kingdom.” DeVos has worked tirelessly to promote school choice throughout her career, advocating for private and religious school vouchers and charter schools as a free-market solution to a public school system that she views as broken, at times explicitly in the name of her Christian faith. Her appointment as Donald Trump’s secretary of education, therefore, alarmed teachers, unions and public school advocates, as well as many civic and religious organizations committed to public education, including the ACLU, NAACP, National Council of Churches, and Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

DeVos’s support for policies that steer public money toward religious instruction and roll back state and federal authority over America’s public school systems may limit options for non-Christian students and those undesired by some religious schools, like LGBT students. Reduced government oversight may also enable public schools—traditional and charter—to bend rules surrounding religious practice in schools, inserting religious teaching and practice into the classroom with little fear of detection. Loosening the restrictions on public funding for schools with religious affiliations not only places minority students at risk, but also has the potential to damage religious institutions themselves, which have thrived in America due in part to their detachment from the state.

The Current Risks to Separation of Church and State

Under the current administration, the separation of church and state in public education could be at risk through several pathways. The budget proposal Trump released in May increased funding for school choice programs, including private school vouchers, which could direct public funding to religious schools at the expense of the public school system. Roughly 80 percent of all private school students in the United States attend religious schools, and in many of the largest private school voucher programs in this country, a majority of voucher users also attend religious schools. A recent article by Century Foundation policy associate Kimberly Quick, “Second Class Students: When Vouchers Exclude,” points out the inevitable discrimination that occurs when the government funds parochial schools, which are able to discriminate in admissions policies based on religion, gender identity and sexual orientation—ultimately harming non-Christian and LGBT students.

According to an internal memo in the Office for Civil Rights that was circulated this June, the Department of Education will investigate fewer civil rights cases in public schools and universities, repealing Obama-era mandates. A diminishment of the federal Office for Civil Rights’ role in actively enforcing federal civil rights law not only raises the risk of discriminatory school voucher policies, but also creates the possibility that violations of students’ religious freedoms across all types of educational settings that receive federal funding, including in traditional public schools, will be less likely to be addressed.

Because of this potential to set precedents across all education systems, these changes in the realm of charter schools constitute perhaps the most insidious threat to the separation of church and state in education.

Because of this potential to set precedents across all education systems, these changes in the realm of charter schools constitute perhaps the most insidious threat to the separation of church and state in education. DeVos’s support for charter schools and track record of loose charter school accountability in Michigan opens the door to the rise of public charter schools with covert religious agendas.

Covert Religious Charter Schools

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are prohibited from running prayer services, promoting a specific religious ideology, or discriminating in admissions policies based on religion. Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools can often avoid strict regulation from the government, particularly in states with lenient accountability requirements like Arizona, Ohio, and Nevada. And in some cases, a religious school in financial straits can capitalize on these lapses in government oversight by reopening as a charter school to obtain public funds.

Faith-based organizations are permitted to open charter schools as long as the schools are governed by a separate nonprofit organization. While in theory a charter school must prove that it does not further a religious agenda in order to receive funding, in reality, in states with lenient charter school accountability, a parochial school may be able to convert to a charter school with only slight curriculum alterations, provided that the school can claim to be run by a secular nonprofit. While charter schools are prohibited from discriminating in admissions policies based on religion, they can target desired groups with strategic advertising and a curriculum that alienates unwanted groups.

It is difficult to pin down how frequently these violations take place, and some are more subtle than others. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notes that lawsuits attempting to hold charter schools accountable for religious content are rare. Nevertheless, in the past few years charter schools have been at the center of multiple lawsuits and scandals for Establishment Clause violations. In 2016, the nonprofit Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the Arizona-based charter network Heritage Academy for promoting Christianity in its coursework, in which it required students to recite religiously framed principles of government, including statements such as “without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained” and “all things were created by God, therefore upon Him all mankind are equally dependent, and to Him they are equally responsible.” The ACLU sued the Minnesota-based charter school Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in 2015 for holding school-wide prayer services, despite repeated assurances by the Minnesota Department of Education that it had inspected the school carefully. Charter school operator Responsive Education Solutions, which operates over seventy schools across Texas and Arkansas, has repeatedly come under fire for teaching creationism in its history and science classes, using a textbook that presented theories of creationism as scientifically based.

The low-accountability charter school system DeVos helped promote in Detroit as chair of the Michigan Republican Party is precisely the kind of system in which covertly religious charter schools are able to flourish.

The low-accountability charter school system DeVos helped promote in Detroit as chair of the Michigan Republican Party is precisely the kind of system in which covertly religious charter schools are able to flourish. A 2016 Detroit Free Press investigation found that “Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics. Taxpayers and parents are left clueless about how charter schools spend the public’s money, and lawmakers have resisted measures to close schools down for poor academic performance year after year.” While it is unlikely that DeVos would openly defend the practice of religion in public charter schools, her continued support for Michigan’s failed charter school system, combined with her explicit support for religious school vouchers, provides little reassurance for all those concerned with the separation of church and state.

A Different Path: Intentionally Diverse Charter Schools

All hope is not lost for charter schools that still aim to advance the public school system rather than manipulate it, and to pursue American ideals of democracy and pluralism in their school missions. A Smarter Charter, by Century Foundation senior fellows Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, highlights intentionally diverse charter schools that encourage students to celebrate their heritage while learning about the diverse backgrounds of their classmates. Community Roots Charter School in New York, for example, has a semester-long kindergarten project in which each student’s family comes in for an interview with the class to learn about each other’s cultural differences. Blackstone Valley Prep Memorial Academy in Cumberland, Rhode Island organizes a Family Leadership Council run by one suburban and one urban parent, to encourage cross-cultural interactions and friendships and foster a positive social and academic environment. The Hebrew Language Academy of Brooklyn, New York may have originally seemed like an example of a disguised parochial school, but has actually been able to draw a highly diverse enrollment profile, with a student body that is 38 percent African American and 4 percent Hispanic, not fully representative of the diversity of Brooklyn, but also clearly not a school strategically targeting Jewish students. Hebrew Language Academy has been able to unify the student community around a shared language, without promoting a religious agenda, according to a 2010 New York Times article. Education news site The 74 claims, “It turns out that the language of the Torah, in combination with school choice, can be a force for racial integration.” These schools demonstrate that discussion of religion and culture in public schools is not necessarily synonymous with the unlawful promotion of religion in public schools. The proof is in the school enrollment: Community Roots Charter School, Blackstone Valley Prep, and the Hebrew Language Academy each celebrate their diversity, while religious charter schools promote exclusion.

Joining Forces: Choice Without Exceptions

When the founding fathers first conceived of the separation of church and state, they did not only wish to protect the government from church influence. Evangelical Christians in the post-Revolutionary era popularized the belief that the integrity of religion can only be maintained if public institutions and religious bodies were kept completely separate, according to religious historians Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt. Allowing religion to infiltrate U.S. public school systems may have unforeseen consequences for religious groups, tempting them to alter their beliefs to increase government support and setting a precedent for the government to issue unwarranted rulings on religious practices, such as the legality of different religious garb or types of prayer.

The charter school movement would ultimately be better served if it steered clear of religious instruction.

The charter school movement would ultimately be better served if it steered clear of religious instruction. Government flexibility with charter school regulations can create a positive environment for testing new teaching styles and educational methods that can ultimately benefit the public school system as a whole, but the dishonest and discriminatory techniques used by religious charter schools make that possibility far more difficult to attain. If Secretary DeVos really wishes to improve educational options for all students, as she claims, she must ensure that public schools of all varieties, including district and charter schools, are welcoming to all students, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, LGBT/gender-nonconforming, and look carefully at curriculum and enrollment to discover schools’ true goals.

Cover photo: Betsy Devos visiting a student at Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary in Miami, Florida. Source: U.S. Department of Education/Flickr.