Students at Duncanville's Advantage Academy follow biblical principles, talk openly about faith and receive guidance from a gregarious former pastor who still preaches when he speaks.
But his congregation is a swath of low-income students. And his sermon is an educator's mantra about the opportunities of charter schools.
Advantage's state-funded campuses showcase the latest breed of charter schools, born from faith-based principles and taxpayer funds. More than 20 percent of Texas' charter schools have some kind of religious ties. That's the case for six of the seven approved this year, including ones in Frisco and Arlington.
"The church-state line is beginning to blur," said Bruce Cooper, a professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education, who has studied religious charter schools. "We may be coming to a midpoint between the best of what is private and the best of what is public."Church-charter partnerships are springing up across the country as private institutions lose funding and nontraditional education models grow in popularity. Their emergence prompts questions about the role religious groups should play in the development of publicly funded schools.
Critics fear the fuzzy division means taxpayers are footing the bill for religious instruction.
"You have to wonder what the impetus is," said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for Texas Freedom Network, an Austin watchdog group focused on church-state issues. "What is the catalyst for becoming a charter because at that point they've abandoned the mission of being a religious institution?"
Charter schools are public schools run by private groups and approved by the State Board of Education. They are freed of many state rules. But they must adhere to the state's accountability tests and maintain a separation of church and state. Religious groups may apply to open a charter school if they establish a separate nonprofit to receive state funds.
Even with a middleman, heavy overlap exists between the school and the religious group that supports it. Dozens of Texas charter school leaders or board members hold prominent positions in the church, where the schooling sometimes takes place. Parochial schools reinvent themselves as charters, often with little guidance on running a public school. And the mission of the school itself typically stems from the values of the religious group.
These close ties stir concern that churches will use state funds to bolster their coffers. In Houston, the Rev. Harold Wilcox and several church members were indicted six years ago for embezzling federal and state funds through Prepared Table Charter School. Wilcox paid himself a $210,000 annual salary to run the school and received $68,000 in rent for classes held in his Baptist church sanctuary.
A decade ago, the state launched an investigation into Dallas' Rylie Faith Family Academy and discovered dozens of family and church members on the founders' payroll. The group installed professional educators and cleaned up its books. Rylie Faith still runs two Dallas charter schools.
'A balancing act'
Advantage Academy sits in two nondescript one-story buildings on the edge of Duncanville , next to a bank and a guarded office complex. Poster board covers the walls inside with stenciled letters that read "Character Counts." Reminders of the academy's seven pillars, including integrity, humility and authority, hang in classrooms next to pie charts and pictures of President Barack Obama.
Advantage markets its teaching of creationism and intelligent design. It offers a Bible class as an elective and encourages personal growth through hard work and "faith in God and country." On a recent morning, a dozen uniformed seventh-graders hunched over worksheets, turning fractions into decimals.
Allen Beck, the academy's founder and a former Assemblies of God pastor, hopes to instill morals and ethics in students as they learn to count and read. "America is in a battle between secularity and biblical thinking," he said. "I want to fuse the two together in a legal way."
Religiously affiliated charters like Beck's tend to emphasize similar themes of developing character and shaping values. His office is filled with books about Abraham Lincoln, seminary degrees and a whiteboard that details a path from victim to victory. "Education" appears as the middle link, right before "acting in faith."
"It's a balancing act," he said.
The ties extend beyond Christian organizations. Houston's highly regarded Harmony Public Schools are run by Turkish Muslims who embody the philosophies of a popular imam. Islamic Relief sponsors Minnesota's Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, whose curriculum emphasizes Muslim culture and Arabic language. Students at Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida eat kosher food in the cafeteria and learn Hebrew.
These charter schools may operate because they say they don't endorse religion – they accommodate it.
They also provide space. Charter schools don't receive local property taxes or state funds for construction, meaning they must scout their own locations.
Leadership Prep School found its home at Frisco's Elevate Life Church.Steve Miner, the church's business administrator, calls the relationship a tenant-renter one. Frisco's first charter school will open there next fall.
Members of Elevate Life approached church officials a year ago and asked if they'd help establish an alternative schooling option in Collin County.
"A lot of community action is happening in our churches," Miner said. "It seems like a natural alignment."
The school will emphasize leadership, one of Elevate Life's key principles. But pastors won't work there, and no religious classes will take place during school hours, Miner said.
Parochial to charter
Religious boundaries appear even hazier for former parochial schools, whose dwindling resources make charters an ideal option.
"It's a large learning curve," said David Ray, who took over South Dallas' St. Anthony School a year after it switched to a charter campus. "When I came in, they were still doing Catholic curriculum. Everything totally changed, with the exception of the building."
St. Anthony Church's white crosses peek over the school's thick iron gate. Words like "risk-taker" and "confidence" are scrawled on cafeteria walls, part of an outside program Ray implemented that promotes culture and self-reflection. Only two of the Catholic teaching staff remain.
Ray gets intercepted regularly for hugs when he walks down the school's tiny hallways. About half of the graduating middle school students go on to Dallas magnet schools. Dallas Diocese members make up much of the board, but Ray insists the school's operations are separate from those of the church next door.
Lawrence Weinberg, who wrote one of the first books on religious charters, sees these connections as an inevitable part of public-private relationships. As long as they don't force faith on students, he also sees them as hope.
"Urban education is in crisis," he said. "If public schools are not doing their job and religious organizations are willing to make a partnership and educate these kids, be happy. That's the starting point."
Six of the seven charter schools approved by the State Board of Education this year have religious ties.
School: Compass Academy, Odessa
Religious tie: Partner with CrossRoads Fellowship Church
School: Arrow Academy, Temple
Religious tie: None found
School: Newman International Academy of Arlington
Religious tie: Sponsor is Saint Servers International, a Christian organization run by the Rev. Lazarus George
School: Leadership Prep School, Frisco
Religious tie: Partner with Elevate Life Church
School: Premier Academy of Learning, La Marque
Religious tie: Partner with Abundant Life Church; future superintendent is a pastor
School: The High School for Business and Economic Success, Houston
Religious tie: Superintendent is a pastor
School: WALIPP-TSU Preparatory Academy, Houston
Religious tie: Sponsor is William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity; Lawson founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and is now pastor emeritus.