A federal district court judge in Idaho dealt a significant blow to the religious right last week by ruling that a publicly supported charter school, the Nampa Classical Academy, could not use the Bible and religious texts as staples of its curriculum. This little-noticed decision was handed down by U.S. Dist. Judge Edward Lodge, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in the days when support for the separation of church and state was not a disqualifier for Republican judicial nominees. The ruling underscores (though this was not its intent) the threat to nonsectarian democratic education posed by taxpayer-financed charter schools that are, in many instances, a cover for pushing private religious and cultural agendas with public money.
The divisive effect of such programs has also been demonstrated in controversies, from Minnesota to Florida, over charter schools emphasizing Arabic and Hebrew language and culture. President Obama ought to take a close second look at all of these messy conflicts and reconsider his support for efforts to address the undeniable problems of American public schools by turning over taxpayer money to businesses, as well as religious and cultural organizations, with aims that are not necessarily in the public interest--whether those aims involve religion or self-interested empire building.
Before he signed on to Idaho's charter school program, the Nampa Academy's founder, Isaac Moffett, had parroted the religious right's lament about the domination of public schools and textbooks by atheism and secularism. Moffett even said that his school was patterned after Hillsdale Academy, a private Christian school in Michigan--though the Idaho state constitution explicitly forbids the teaching of sectarian or religious doctrines in public school classes.
When Idaho's Public School Charter Commission eventually told the academy that it could not include the Bible and religious texts as primary sources and receive state money--one wonders why they ever approved the school as a grant recipient in the first place--the academy sued the state for violating the free speech rights of students and teachers.
Judge Lodge, in his dismissal of the lawsuit, declared: "By selecting the school curriculum for public education the [state officials] had not violated Plaintiffs' rights... Just the opposite, [the officials] had acted according to the laws of the State of Idaho and the demands placed upon them by the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The Plaintiffs remain free to speak and believe what they wish...Here, however, Plaintiffs simply are not the master of the content of the public school curriculum in Idaho."
The Academy, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund--a well-financed legal arm of the religious right--may well appeal the decision in search of a friendlier judge. The alliance's senior legal counsel, David Cortman, referred contemptuously to "the so-called separation of church and state" in denouncing the decision.
This case exemplifies the folly of putting public education money into private hands. The proliferation of charter schools emphasizing Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Hispanic culture raises similar questions about the whether specialized charter schools are in accord with the basic purpose of public education. The mission of public elementary and secondary schools is not to imbue students with specialized knowledge of other cultures (regardless of whether those cultures are part of their own family history) but to teach them basic reading and writing skills, mathematics, science, what used to be called "civics" (meaning a working knowledge of American history and government, general world history), and, above all, logical thinking. Elective courses in many other languages and cultures are certainly desirable at the secondary level if a community wants them; schools that stress one foreign language and culture are not.
Parents who want their children to learn sophisticated Hebrew and Arabic should pay for those classes themselves, just as parents who want children to become better acquainted with the Bible or the Qur'an should send them to Christian, Jewish or Muslim afterschool classes financed by churches, synagogues and mosques.
But cultural divisiveness is only one of many troubling issues raised by the charter school movement. We have embarked on a vast and disturbing social experiment, running directly counter to America's tradition of leadership in the expansion of free public education, without any evidence that privatized schools using public money (because that is what charter schools really are) work any better than public schools serving the same population. The educational historian Daine Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of The Great American School System, has become the target of sharp criticism from the right because she has abandoned her support for charter schools in the face of mounting evidence from dispassionate expert evaluations that the charter institutions do not provide a better education than public schools.
Charter schools, Ravitch has concluded, are performing no better than average public schools but are draining resources from a hard-pressed public school system. Furthermore, she notes that countries whose students regularly perform better than Americans on international tests are all distinguished by their robust public education systems--and a larger investment in teacher training than the United States is now willing to make.
Ravitch's mortal sin appears to be a willingness to change her mind when new evidence contradicts a previously held position. Arthur E. Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, lamented that while Ravitch "has done more than any one I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing," her change of mind "is extraordinary--and not very helpful." Not helpful to whom? To people who have a psychological and political investment in pushing school privatization regardless of disappointing academic results? One of the curses of American public life today is the idea that there is something inherently wrong about changing a position that evidence has failed to support.
President Obama has made an enormous mistake by using his "Race to The Top" program to push states to expand the number of charter schools. He should take a look not only at the divisive impact of charter schools with an ethnic or religious ax to grind but at the mounting evidence that the much-vaunted superiority of charter schools is an article of blind faith rather than a conclusion reached after rigorous independent evaluation.
We are living through a period when public school budgets have been slashed throughout the nation because states are in tough economic straits (Kansas City, Mo., had to close half of its public schools to save money; teacher layoffs are raising class sizes everywhere.) What an utter misuse of American time, ingenuity and energy to create new, semi-private schools that waste our tax money, often unconstitutionally but always unwisely, by teaching children about the founding myths of Christianity or the glories of ancient Israel. We should not be rejecting but building on the heritage of a public school system that, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, was--in spite of its many shorcomings--a model of how to educate and assimilate millions of immigrant children who would have had no access to a free education had their parents remained in their native lands.