Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mormon Schools

Natalie R. Collins reports that, at her daughter's junior high, the active Mormons play a game where they dress special on a given day. The result of the game is that is easy to vet out which kids are Mormon and which are not.

I lead in with this simply to note that, in Utah, things are different.

As my college professors would put it: the Mormons have hegemony in this state.

Traveling around the state, you will find an LDS Seminary adjacent to just about every public school. Utah law allows generous off campus privileges so that students can attend classes in the seminary. When I was in school, Utah graduation requirements were a bit easier than most states to free up time so the kids could go to seminary.

The Utah school paradox is that, although Utah has a strongly religious population, Utah also has the highest percentage of students that go to public schools.

The reason for this is obvious. In Utah, the public school system is essentially the Mormon parochial school system. Looking through the list of private schools, you just don't find a category of Mormon schools.

It is my observation that the LDS world view is very much driven by community. When you move into an area, you are expected to go to the ward for the area, and that your children will go to the public school in the area. I get the feeling that most Mormons really aren't keen on uppity people who go to private schools.

As the LDS have hegemony in the public schools, a sizeable portion of the private school population is non-Mormon families trying to get their children into a more secular environment.

At this point in time, the primary beneficiary of the voucher law will be non-Mormon kids from lower income levels who feel alienated being in a Mormon dominated public school, but can't afford a way out.

A few critics of the voucher proposal seem to be positioning the voucher issue as an effort of rightwing Mormons to pull their students from the public school system. I really don't see this. The Mormons I know are all very content with their kids going to the neighborhood church and the neighborhood public school. The seminary is positioned to counter any anti-Mormon bias of the secular school.

Here, I should note that I am a cynical b-tard who thinks the LDS Church writes all Utah legislation then sends it to the legislature for a rubber stamp. However, as the vouchers are not advantageous to LDS Church (they will still continue to use and dominate the public schools) I don't buy this argument.

I've toyed with the idea that the LDS Church wants to get into the private school business, and that the voucher issue is a way to get the Utah taxpayer's to fund the creation of a new Mormon owned school system. If this were the case, then I think we would be seeing Mormon schools popping up throughout the state. I don't see this happening.

In my lifetime, the LDS Church has divested itself of many of its businesses including its chain of department stores, its hospitals and some of its financial institutions.

The best I can come to a nefarious motivation on the voucher law is that the Utah Republican majority wants Utah to be a leader on national conservative issues. Passing the vouchers increases the states credentials as a center of conservative thought. The motivation is that the Mormons want to ease up on their local hegemony so that they can play a braoder role in the world of ideas. This motivation would make Dr. Evil yawn.

When I was in the U of U's education department, I was taught to see everything as great hegemonic battles. The idea is that, for society to progress, all socio-economic actions must be placed in the context of a class struggle. We can find such struggle in Mormon history. In early Mormon history, it appears the LDS Church was set on finding an area that they could dominate, politically, socially and culturally.

In the last half century, though, the LDS Church seems much more interested in its role as an international organization, and less on the desire to dominate the local scene.

If anything, I think the LDS Church wants to promote Utah as a meeting place of religions. This last half century has seen the construction of Mosques, Hindu Temples and Synagogues and that there is an authentic desire to have a diversity of schools and diversity of religious thought in the valley. Some of these efforts have received direct support from the LDS Church.

As for the motivation of the political leadership in the state, I think they are driven primarily by economic concerns. The fact that Utah has the highest percentage of its work force coming from the same cookie cutter public schools means that we lack the diversity of thought of other economic hubs. The lack of private schools makes it hard to attract businesses to the state.

Regardless, I can find no reason to characterize the voucher proposal as some sort of "Mormon-thing" as the LDS Church is not a primary benefactor of the proposal. Non-Mormons are more likely to use the vouchers than Mormons. The idea really seems to be propelled by the belief that diversity in schools will lead to better education for all.


Scott Hinrichs said...

There is a small private school near where I live that was put together by LDS backers. I couldn't say for sure, but I believe that all of the students are LDS. The people that put the school together are also pretty strong libertarians. They have a strong focus on teaching the Constitution. However, I do not believe they have formal religion classes.

The vast majority of Utah's home schoolers are LDS. Would these people consider a private school if it had an LDS emphasis? I'm not sure. The academy I described above has reportedly had difficulty attracting students from this group.

y-intercept said...

A company owned by Mormons is completely different from one owned by the LDS Church. This sounds like a group of people who want a curriculum that expresses their values.

The fact that they are avidly libertarian shows that they are at odds with early LDS thought which was communitarian.

It is possible that a voucher system could hurt the LDS church as the independent schools built by Mormons develop curriculum that diverges from mainstream LDS thought.

I understand that the seminary system is owned by the LDS Church. The voucher system moves education from a system that the LDS can control to something that is unpredictable.

As for your question about attracting home schoolers ... I think a school hosting teaching companies might be able to crack this market. Let's say a biology teaching company had a state of the art lab. Home schoolers might be willing to pop a few hundred bucks for classes in the lab. Conversely, teaching companies might provide an avenue for home schoolers with a good curriculum to teach classes at private schools.