Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Should Public Schools Promote Godly Character?

Jesus and the Declaration of Independence
How Christian Were the Founders?

Was Jesus one of America's Founding Fathers? If you care about what your children are taught about science and history in Texas public schools, then you'll want to pay attention this election year not only to the governor's race but to some obscure races down the ballot for the State Board of Education (SBOE). According to Unfair Park:

"This could be the election that decides exactly how much power religious ideologues hold over the board that shapes the education for 5 million public school students in Texas."

Last year, the seven members of the religious-right faction on the SBOE successfully steered the science standards to include wording that undermines evolution. This year, the SBOE is tackling social studies, seeking to include language that revises American history to promote Christianity. For the fundamentalists, takeover of education is but a step towards a larger goal, takeover of government. In an article this week, The New York Times explains the fundamentalists' strategy:

"As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, 'The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.'"

After the jump, what the SBOE candidates themselves had to say at a League of Women Voters forum in Richardson Wednesday evening.

The League of Women Voters of Plano/Collin County, Dallas and Richardson, and the National Council of Jewish Women, Greater Dallas Section, held a forum for candidates for District 9 (Don McLeroy (R), Thomas Ratliff (R), Jeff McGee (L)) and District 12 (Geraldine Miller (R), George Clayton (R), and Amie Parsons (L)) for the State Board of Education. About 70 persons were in attendance.

The issue of the SBOE's management of the $20 billion Permanent School Fund (PSF) generated the most heat. In 2009, the SBOE fired its general investment consultant and, over reservations of the PSF's professional staff, hired a consultant with higher costs and lower rankings. Worse, the SBOE champion of the new consultant had an alleged conflict of interest with the new consultant and his private business, a relationship allegedly kept from other board members. Parsons said the legislature was already considering, even before this SBOE action, taking away from the SBOE responsibility for managing the PSF. Ratliff said the new firm was not the right choice. Clayton went farther, calling the vote unethical. Miller also used the word unethical, saying she was adamantly opposed to the collaboration of the subcommittee in getting rid of the "good guys" as she put it. McGee called for more transparency. McLeroy alone defended the SBOE action.

On the role of religion and religious values in education, five of the six candidates were in agreement that promoting religion should have no role in public education, although inclusion of religion in a historical or cultural context is sometimes permissible. Miller, McGee and Ratliff explicitly mentioned the principal of separation of church and state to justify their position. McLeroy didn't repeat his belief, stated elsewhere, that the concept of separation of church and state is a myth, but did say one of his goals on the SBOE is to instill virtue and Godly character in children.

On the topic of sex education, Texas state law dictates that sex education must be provided and that abstinence should be emphasized, but gives local school districts wide latitude in how to teach it. All candidates sounded more or less in agreement with leaving it to local control. Parsons and McGee said abstinence-only education does not work. Clayton said abstinence is difficult to sell to teens. McLeroy said the SBOE's only role is in choosing health textbooks and says the SBOE should choose books that support what parents teach at home. What that is he didn't say, but he did once oppose health textbooks that even mentioned the word condom. Could he really think no Texas parents teach comprehensive sex education at home?

On whether the SBOE should listen to experts when developing the curriculum, the candidates split five to one. McGee said of course the SBOE should listen to subject matter experts. Parsons said the SBOE is not listening to the experts, saying one expert told her the SBOE took the recommendations and then weakened the proposed standards. Ratliff cited the example of a recent hearing where 150 people travelled to Austin to address the SBOE on social studies standards. After the time allotted on the agenda elapsed, the SBOE shut off the microphones, denying some people the opportunity to speak. Ratliff said the next day the SBOE was back in session until 10:00 PM listening to themselves speak. Teacher Clayton said teachers are the experts and the SBOE should listen to teachers. McLeroy, who once proudly stated that he stood up to the experts who supported evolution, said that his responsibility was to bring everyone to the table, not just teachers. Miller said she was beginning to question the SBOE's decision to allow the inputs of so-called outside experts. Ratliff explained that an "outside expert" was anyone that as few as two SBOE members said was an expert. McLeroy defended the practice, saying it was good policy and was approved 15-0, to which Ratliff responded that, in that case, he disagreed with all fifteen. Richardson residents might remember Bill Ames, right-wing extremist in local political forums. Ames was appointed a social studies expert by McLeroy, although what in his background makes him an expert in social studies is unknown. Ames recently wrote a letter to the editor of The Dallas Morning News, endorsing McLeroy for re-election, in which he described the accomplishments of the conservative members of the SBOE:

"In developing curriculum for every subject, they overcame the shrill opposition of education establishment leftists and lobbyists. They rejected educators' demands to frighten children with myths of an environmental holocaust. They prevented censorship of discussion that challenges evolution theory. They rejected bad ideas: Reformed math, whole-language reading and Planned Parenthood's anything-goes sex education curriculum. In U.S. history, they support teaching America's heritage rather than social manipulation of our kids' basic values."

I came away from the forum thinking anybody but Don McLeroy would make a huge improvement on the SBOE. But even without the McLeroy comparison, Thomas Ratliff was impressive, calling to take politics out of education and to restore a good working relationship between the SBOE and legislators and between the SBOE and educators. Miller's outspoken opposition to the SBOE's management of the PSF was promising. Except for her endorsement of abstinence-only sex education, she said nothing to suggest she would not listen to subject matter experts in setting curriculum standards and choosing textbooks. Clayton spends too much time telling voters he's a teacher and how things are done at his school to convince me he understands what the SBOE itself does or should do. McGee and Parsons, the Libertarians, have too little experience to be considered serious candidates.

Thanks to the League of Women Voters and the National Council of Jewish Women for sponsoring this forum. Now, get out and vote. Do it for the kids.

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