School Boards Become the Religious Right’s New Pulpit : Education: Alliances of conservative Christian parents, political groups take control of panels, spark battles.
First-grade teacher Diane Palmer walked hesitantly to the microphone at the front of the packed school auditorium. Five members of the school board, whose back-to-basics philosophy had already cut guidance and anti-drug programs, sat impassively on the stage as she begged them to abandon a plan to limit instruction to a board-approved curriculum.
“We cannot restrict teachers this way,” Palmer said. “I want to be a mind-stretcher, not a mind-stuffer. Please do not pass this policy. Please put the word ‘trust’ back into my contract.”
As she walked away, about half the crowd stood and applauded. A handful of others hissed. It was another engagement in the culture war.
From San Diego County to New York City, the religious right has turned the public schools into the primary battleground in a divisive conflict over the most fundamental issues of national identity. At issue is nothing less than what values should be taught to the next generation of Americans.
Conservative Christian parents have aligned themselves with religious-right political organizations to take control of local school boards--more than 2,000 of them, a leader of one religious-right group claims. Among the opponents are liberal and moderate parents; the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest union; and other like-minded organizations.
A Times examination of school disputes across the country and interviews with dozens of participants found that conflicts are typically rooted in local disputes over books, curriculum--particularly sex education--and homosexuality. The religious right opposes teaching materials that go beyond basic instruction and aim explicitly to improve self-esteem or to change behavior.
In Vista, Calif., for example, sparks flew when the majority on the school board introduced creationism to the school curriculum. In central Florida, hundreds of people protested when the conservative-dominated school board banned a Head Start program on grounds that young children should stay home with their mothers.
The soldiers in these battles are local residents, but the generals are from national organizations.
“What began as a local dispute that could be mediated gets polarized into a dispute that is national in scope,” said James Davison Hunter, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia.
Propelling the schools into the forefront of the nation’s culture war has been the changes in the American family. Almost by default, many schools have taken on sensitive responsibilities previously handled by families--from feeding children breakfast to teaching them tolerance.
Conservative Christian parents often say they believe that the schools have no business in that territory. They want the schools to teach skills and facts--just the basics.
“In schools these days, the moral architecture of the soul is being neglected or ignored or perverted on instruction, centered on issues like self-esteem or sexuality, that is antithetical to the parents’ wishes,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. “That phenomenon is combined with the fact that parents feel they’re losing control of their children’s upbringing.”
The religious right’s foot soldiers are from all over America. The recruits are predominantly white, middle-class parents. They harbor strong religious beliefs that clash with the “liberal values” that, in their view, dominate the public schools.
Schools have been an ideological battleground for decades, but there is no precedent for the breadth of the religious right’s current campaign. “It is much wider-spread than it ever was in the past,” said NEA Vice President Bob Chase. “It is a new phenomenon to have networking as thorough as this.”
One of the war rooms for the religious right, the headquarters of Citizens for Excellence in Education, is tucked away in a modest office in a strip mall off the Costa Mesa Freeway in Santa Ana, Calif. Inside, Robert Simonds, with a well-used Bible opened to the Book of Leviticus on his desk, talked of his decision one night five years ago to form a nationwide network to help conservative Christians take over school boards.
During 13 hours in a San Francisco motel, he wrote the booklet “How to Elect Christians to Public Office.” It has become the war manual for his movement, which now has 1,550 chapters fighting against the NEA, the organization’s chief nemesis.
“It’s a clash of cultural views, a clash of religious beliefs, a clash of traditional values,” he said. “More than all of those things, it’s a clash of power.”
Simonds, a preacher who left the pulpit to teach and then to form his political network, takes his campaign on the road every other week, holding 70 to 80 banquets a year to rally the troops. His staff prepares mountains of literature that advocates returning to the basics in public schools and issuing vouchers enabling parents to send their children to private schools.
Other targets include multicultural education, sex education, courses that promote self-esteem and non-academic programs aimed at helping underprivileged children. Books on the hit lists of Simonds and like-minded activists include Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” which they oppose because of profanity and sex, and Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” which they think teaches occult practices.
Simonds claims that his organization has helped elect almost 5,000 school board members in the last two years and that it now controls 2,200 school boards nationwide. Opponents dispute that total, but Simonds refuses to disclose a list.
“It’s not that we want to hide anything,” he said. “It’s just that every time we do it, the NEA takes their union goons to persecute the Christian parents.”
Opponents accuse his group of using “stealth” tactics--that is, showing school board candidates how to win election without revealing their real agenda. Simonds does not deny it.
“There are two ways you can run,” he tells prospective candidates. “You can say: ‘I’m a Christian. I believe in traditional values. I believe in teaching both viewpoints, creationism and evolution.’ The other way is (to run) as a conservative parent who says: ‘I’m running because I love my children.’ You don’t have to say it up front that you’re a Christian.”
His advice? The second way.
Everything changes, Simonds said, when school boards change hands. “After that,” he said, "(the liberals) are going to be the ones on the outside looking in. Once you have a majority on a school board, you control the money, you control the books.”
One of Simonds’ success stories is Lake County, a community in central Florida where orange groves are being replaced by mobile home parks for retirees from Northern states.
Lake County’s first taste of the religious right came in 1990, when Pat Hart, a Citizens for Excellence member, was elected to the school board. As a lone voice on a five-member board, she made little progress for such aims as teaching creationism and abstinence-only sex education.
Two years later, two like-minded candidates were elected to the school board using a voter guide that was distributed at churches the Sunday before the election. The guide was presented as candidate responses to specific questions. It portrayed the incumbents, all Republicans, as big-spending liberals who supported abortion and opposed giving parents a say in educational decision-making.
But the guide’s authors had never asked the incumbents for their views.
“It was just misinformation,” said Tim Sullivan, a defeated incumbent. “They did a great job of slam campaigning.”
Almost immediately, the new conservative majority canceled plans to open a Head Start program at an elementary school in a poor part of the county, on the grounds that the government should not be offering services that families should be providing to their young.
“I see it as bigotry,” said Betty Coney, the principal of the elementary school. “I can’t see refusing those who are in need. And yet they say they are Christians.”
Hart said the board majority is pursuing a policy of fiscal conservatism, not religious beliefs.
Religious-right opponents in Lake County have formed People for Mainstream Values in an attempt to regain control of the board.
But Citizens for Excellence in Education is not backing off. Simonds took his folksy recruiting show to a shopping mall in Lake County in October in his search for school board candidates who would implement his back-to-basics agenda.
A few weeks earlier in the ballroom of a Washington, D.C., hotel, the faithful gathered to hear a more sophisticated version of the same battle cry. More than 2,000 delegates to the Christian Coalition’s national convention rose to their feet repeatedly to applaud as former presidential candidates Robertson and Patrick J. Buchanan called for a revolution in the public schools.
“Public education has become a gigantic, inefficient, state-run monopoly controlled by a greedy left-wing union,” Robertson said. “If the public schools do not do their jobs, let them go out of business.”
The political muscle of Robertson’s 450,000-strong Christian Coalition has “shifted toward a localized, citizen-based, child-centered agenda,” Reed said.
As an example of that power, speakers pointed to a victory in New York City, where the Christian Coalition forged an alliance with the Catholic diocese last spring to put “pro-family” candidates in dozens of local school board seats.
“We won a major victory in New York City in May,” Reed said. “The Christian Coalition came in like the cavalry.”
Several of the convention’s workshops focused on local school issues, including one entitled “Influencing School Board Policy.” This year the organization will hold 83 seminars nationwide to teach at least 5,000 people how to get involved in local politics.
“We are training thousands of people every year to seek office if they feel so led” by God, Reed said.
In an attempt to avoid a repeat of what happened in New York, representatives of the NEA and dozens of other organizations--from Planned Parenthood to the Motion Picture Assn. of America--meet every other month in Washington to plot their defense.
“The common ground is everybody in the room is fighting the religious right on one front or another,” said Matt Freeman of People for the American Way, a liberal civil rights group that coordinates the meetings.
The counteroffensive is formidable and well-financed. At conferences and work sessions across the country, the groups teach their members how to spot and defeat “stealth campaigns” by religious-right adherents.
One reason educators and their allies take the threat so seriously is that they recognize that the public wants to overhaul the schools.
“People are desperate and scared about today, but even more so about tomorrow,” said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way. “There is a sense of loss in the country’s values and morals. There is violence, sex, poverty. The religious right takes advantage of those fears. Schools give them a platform to deal with all their issues.”
Opponents of the religious right have come up with their own war manual. It is called “The San Diego Model: A Community Battles the Religious Right.”
In 1990, 58 religious-right candidates won school board and municipal elections throughout San Diego County. Opponents mobilized to reverse the trend in 1992.
Despite that effort, the religious right gained a majority on the five-member school board in Vista. Once in place, the majority pushed a religious-right centerpiece: creationism, the concept that God created the Earth and man and that the theory of evolution is wrong.
State education guidelines in California and elsewhere prohibit teaching creationism as a science. However, the Vista board passed a policy sanctioning teaching “divine creation” as a theory in history, social sciences, English and language arts classes.
The policy was adopted after an emotional public forum in August that stretched past midnight. “We now have creationism on equal footing with evolution,” Deidre Holliday, who heads the majority, said at the time.
Tom Conry, the president of the Vista Teachers’ Assn., said the impact of the board--and others who share their philosophy around the country--should not be underestimated.
“This is the most serious threat that faces public education because they’re going to the root of what public schools do: teach kids to think,” he said.
But John Tyndall, one of the conservatives on the Vista board, said he is not trying to cram religion down people’s throats, just limit schools to teaching academics.
“They accept the broader welfare agenda of taking care of the whole child,” said Tyndall, an accountant who works at an institute that promotes creationism. “I don’t want to see our schools involved in welfare. More and more you’re going to find parental rights encroached upon.”
The dispute over parental rights has split communities nationwide. Nowhere has it been more obvious that children can be the casualties than here in the Octorara School District, which serves a rural area east of Lancaster, Pa.
For nearly a month this fall, classes came to a halt over an impasse between teachers and the school board. The board had tried to restrict teachers to covering only material specified in the board-approved curriculum and to give parents the right to withdraw their children from almost any class.
On a blustery autumn afternoon, Gail Smith was one of about 40 teachers picketing outside the schools.
“The board is calling it a parental-rights policy, but it’s a censorship policy,” said Smith, a parent and teacher who grew up in the area and went to Octorara schools. “This policy is scary. I want my kid to be able to think. I don’t want a fact robot.”
At the height of the strike, the NEA sent Chase to the community.
“We wanted to send a message to the teachers that we understood the magnitude of the issue they’re fighting and that we will do everything we can do to assist them to fight their battle,” he said.
“Anybody who doesn’t think this is a war needs a reality check,” said school board Chairman Wayne Thomas. “It is a battle for control: Who will run the school system? Are the teachers or are the parents and the local school board (in control)? Why do you think the NEA was here? Two months ago the NEA didn’t even know Octorara existed.”
Those divisions were evident when tempers flared as hundreds of parents and teachers crammed into a school auditorium on an October evening to debate the policy. While some came to the defense of the board, most blasted it.
After the meeting, the board backed away from the policy--but not the philosophy behind it. One battle is over, but the war continues.