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Religion in Public Schools

 ( How can we achieve a balanced neutrality? ) 

Public concerns about public schools — which are regulated by government (at the local, state, and federal levels) and are attended by the majority of American students — include questions about educational quality and religious neutrality.  Strategies for improving educational quality (for helping students learn more effectively in a comfortable, motivating environment) are examined in the area for EFFECTIVE TEACHING.   Strategies for improving religious neutrality — or, more humbly, for simply finding some shared basis for thinking about what "neutrality" is, and why it might be useful and desirable — are the main focus in this page, which contains these sections:

 Education about Religion         Character Education 
 Charter Schools       School Choice & Vouchers 
 Public Responses to Public Schools
 


 
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Religion in Education vs.

Education about Religion

Almost everyone agrees that, in American public schools, teachers should not "teach religion" by actively advocating any religious worldview: theistic, atheistic, agnostic, new age,...  But should we teach students about religion?  And if so, what should be taught, and how?
 

Religion and Worldviews

A world view (or worldview) is a view of the world, used for living in the world.  A worldview is a set of theories about reality (constructed both individually and collectively, consciously and unconsciously), a comprehensive framework of ideas and attitudes about the world, ourselves, and life, with answers for a wide range of important questions, about religion and much more.
      Should there be any causes for concern, among parents and educators, about religious neutrality in the worldviews that form a foundation for the curriculum and instruction in public schools?  Why do some concerned citizens, with worldviews spanning a wide range, have questions about the religious implications of world views in public education?
 

      Does absence produce balance?
     
An introductory overview is Worldview Balance in Public Education by Craig Rusbult, who describes an essential asymmetry that is important when we ask, "Does the absence of a perspective produce a balanced treatment of this perspective?", and concludes that "effective teaching depends on the integrity and skill of teachers who think carefully, with wisdom and courage, about desirable goals, who build a solid foundation by adequate preparation and planning, and carry out their plans with sensitivity and respect."
      In more comprehensive treatments, Warren Nord looks at a problem — one-sided practice is unfair to students — and proposes a solution: What is the relevance of religion in the curriculum?     Eventually, relationships between religion and science (is it warfare?) will be examined when the "science and religion" part of WORLDVIEWS EDUCATION is more fully developed.
      How have educators and citizens responded to proposals for teaching about religion in public schools?  The reactions have been mixed, with praise and criticism from throughout the spectrums of politics and religions.  Generally, however, the response has been positive, as described in A Shared Vision for Public Schools.

      Is it constitutional and legal?
     
Yes, education about religion is compatible with the U.S. Constitution when it's done properly, as explained in an overview of Religious Liberty in Public Schools by Charles Haynes.  Another introduction, explaining why teachers in college (or K-12) public schools do not have to obey "laws that do not exist," is from the Free Speech Project of Campus Leadership Ministries.  And you can explore First Amendment Schools: Educating for Freedom and Responsibility from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and First Amendment Center.
      For a more thorough understanding, Finding Common Ground (a book by Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas) includes a fascinating History of Religious Liberty in American Public Life plus a summary of constitutional principles, recent Supreme Court interpretations, and legal guidelines for Religious Liberty in Public Education.  They also offer a Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools designed to help teachers (and administrators and school boards) make wise decisions about what to teach, and how, in the classroom.   { If your browser can't open these PDF-pages, click here. }

      Is it wise?
     
Excluding religion from the public school curriculum is not educationally neutral because absence does not produce balance.  But when religion is included there will be concerns when there is a perception that the instruction actually is (or potentially could be) too favorable toward some religions and worldviews, or too unfavorable.
      For example, in Required Religion (a review of Warren Nord's book, "Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma") John West praises Nord's analysis of the problem, but criticizes the proposed solution by arguing that teaching students about religion should not be the business of government, that if individuals and private organizations were allowed to do more in this area it would be more effective and more consistent with American ideals of religious liberty.
      Edd Doerr (who is a humanist, while West is a Christian) questions the wisdom and practicality of Teaching about Religion and describes the challenges of avoiding indoctrination and teaching fairly about religions (and associated controversies) across a wide range of worldviews that, if it is done at all, should include nonreligious views.  And advocates for Objectivity, Accuracy, and Balance In Teaching About Religion think public schools should teach students about a wide variety of religious and nonreligious worldviews.

Questions about religion education (above) and character education (below) are different, yet related.

 

Character Education

      The basics are explained in an FAQ by the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, and Eleven Principles — including core ethical values and working cooperatively with family & community (including religious institutions) — from the Character Education Project.

      Is it wise?
      Everyone agrees that character education is important, but there is controversy about how to teach character and — if there are significant disagreements about how to teach it — whether it should be taught.   Agreeing & Disagreeing about What & How

      Character education programs differ in content and process, and different approaches will be viewed more or less favorably by people with different worldviews.
      For example, a program from North Carolina (*) wants to "promote partnerships between parents, schools, community, businesses, and faith communities," and wants schools to "ask faith communities to incorporate the [character] traits into sermons and religious instruction."  This program does not explicitly teach religion, but does respectfully acknowledge its relevance for students and their families and communities.
      A program from the University of Illinois (urban extension) wants schools to "become the framework for constructing meaning for living and a bridge to understanding the value of a fulfilled life," but seems to ignore the religious perspectives that, for many students and parents, are the ultimate basis for meaning and fulfillment.  (The program "seems to" ignore religious perspectives in its website, but I could be wrong in my inference about it's a program guided by "politically correct" ideology.)
      * North Carolina offers summaries (Elements of Character Education & Building Strong Character) and an Information Handbook (in 64 web-pages or one pdf-file) and Lesson Plans.

      Character Education is not Values Clarification:  there will be more about this (and other important distinctions) by November 2010.

      Responding to the question "Is Character Education Hopeless?" in different ways, Kevin Ryan and William Kilpatrick explain why public schools should teach character (KR), and why this cannot be done effectively in the current culture of schools (WK).

      more information:  10 Tips [for parents] for Raising Children of Character from Kevin Ryan;  a comprehensive overview by Haynes & Oliver;  The Relationship of Religion to Moral Education in the Public Schools (it's long but good, with many insightful ideas clearly expressed) by Nord & Haynes.
 


 
 

Charter Schools

      A charter school is a hybrid, having some features of both public and private schools, as explained in an introductory overview (from U.S. Charter Schools) and FAQs — short (from North Carolina & Great Schools + comments) and longer from Center for Education Reform & Indiana & California (which has 12 sections!).
      Lee Sherman tells a story of educational pioneers, and a national study provides a detailed description of How Charter Schools are Different.  In 2001, Chester Finn asked What Lies Ahead for Charter Schools?
      Since charter schools achieve autonomy by agreeing to accountability, an important question is: How can we accurately evaluate students' performance (what they know and can do) and a school's teaching quality, and do this in a way that enhances, not hinders, a school's freedom and effectiveness?  This crucial challenge is described in three papers: medium-short (summary of national study), long (by Richard Rothstein), and medium (by Melissa Steineger).
      The St Louis Academies, started by inner-city black ministers, are an example of charter schools arising from a religious community's response to local needs.  You can read the fascinating story of these non-religious schools and their visionary leaders: a bishop and a marine.
 


 
 

School Choice: Charters and Vouchers

      As described above, a charter school "has some features of both public and private schools."  A voucher program is similar to a charter school program, with one exception:  a charter school can adopt a nonreligious worldview, but not a religious worldview.
      This difference is highlighted by Lee Sherman: "As school choice goes, charters have a much broader appeal than their kissing cousins, vouchers.  First, charters (along with the kids they serve and the per-pupil dollars they spend) stay in the public system.  Vouchers, on the other hand, take money out of the public system and give it to private schools.  And that's where the second big point comes in: charters can't be granted for religious instruction.  Vouchers can."   But why do nonreligious charter schools "stay in the public system"?  Because they are defined as being in the public system, while religious schools are defined as being out of the system.  This raises an important question:  How should we define the "public" in public schools?
      One philosophical vision of public schools is offered by Phillip Tate.  Another is from Charles Glenn, who compares the treatment of American faith-based schools with other faith-based services (and with religious public schools in other countries, such as the Netherlands) and discusses the practical challenges of making vouchers work.
      Nick Penning, writing for AASA, outlines anti-voucher arguments. (sorry, it's no longer on the server)   Ron Sider explains why we should explore strategies for making schools work for the rich and the poor.  When Kate Campbell asks, regarding school choice, Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?, her anti-voucher arguments (about the economic effects of choice on inner city public schools) apply equally to charters and vouchers;  similarly, most of the pro-charter arguments of James Harvey are also pro-voucher;  and Barry McGhan, a supporter of teacher-led public schools (especially magnets and charters), wants more candor from both sides in the voucher debate.

      The situation is complex:  Different types of voucher programs are possible (the details are important), and there are legitimate concerns, by supporters and opponents, about educational quality, worldview neutrality, accountability to the public, and autonomy of schools.  Views on vouchers vary throughout the political spectrum.  Contrary to usual expectations, for example, a Progressive Case for Vouchers is strong, according to Charles Glenn.  And some conservatives oppose vouchers because the accompanying government controls can cause problems for private and home schools, says Cathy Duffy.
      Joe Loconte explains how regulation can be used as a weapon against religious schools, and why voucher legislation must be carefully written to reduce the risk of overly restrictive regulations, because "if designed poorly, voucher programs could undermine [private school] independence."  In a review of Glenn's book about "The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-Based Schools and Social Agencies," Eric McHenry makes a case for public funding of faith-based services that are chosen by individual citizens.

 

Public Responses to Public Schools

 
      Choosing a School

      For parents, an important response is choosing a school for their own children.  To facilitate this decision, Great Schools offers advice for setting priorities and visiting a school.  Their suggestions are useful, but they say nothing about a major concern of many parents: the spiritual environment of a school (established by teachers, students, and others) and the worldviews that are part of what is being taught.  These religious values are an important consideration when Don Closson, of Probe Ministries, summarizes the educational and spiritual benefits of three schooling choices.

      A news report describes two responses to current public schools: avoid or improve.

      Avoiding Public Schools

      Ray Moore, head of Exodus Mandate, urges Christian parents to liberate their children from public schools.  And proponents of a "separation of school and state," who don't want government involved in education, give reasons and answer questions.
 

      Improving Public Schools

      The Christian Educators Association International is dedicated to supporting public education.  In Pennsylvania, faith leaders (Christian and Jewish) want better balance in school funding, in an effort to provide equal educational opportunities.  Cheri Fuller, in Focus on the Family Magazine, encourages prayer and parental involvement to rebuild hope for public schools.  Wheaton College helps its students become agents of beneficial change — consistent with their Christian faith, principles, and love — when they teach in public and private schools.  In "The Courage to Teach Well: Guiding Principles and Inner Resources for Teaching," educators at the Center for Teaching Excellence (at Texas A&M) offer wise pedagogical and spiritual advice for Christian teachers.

      Social Cooperation in Productive Political Process
      The social context of public education, the essence of why process is important, is introduced by David Mathews in Public Schools, Our Schools.  In this page, which is the first chapter of his book, he explains why educators should include "the public" in major decisions about public education.
      In 1996, the New York Times ran a fascinating story about the challenge of Putting Values in the Classroom, Carefully.  Reading this report will stimulate your thinking about the effects of various political activities.  One approach, based on threats of legal action, can usually influence educational policies because most school boards will feel that just getting sued would mean "losing" even if their school district could eventually "win" in the courtroom.  Threatening a lawsuit may seem effective because it usually will affect policy decisions, but is this productive for the community?  Adopting an alternative approach, one community decided to let their curriculum be "drafted by an influential group of local ministers, rabbis, former politicians and business executives."
      This public process is more consistent with the principles outlined by Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas in Strategies for Finding Common Ground.  Haynes gives illustrations of productive process in action, with rational discussion and mutual respect, in efforts to resolve disputes about religion in public schools (with Common Ground Principles at Work) and faith-based social services (by Breaking the Gridlock to Serve the Nation's Needy).
 





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