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NEWS STORY: Reports: school boards emerging as culture-wars battleground

c. 1997 Religion News Service UNDATED _ Local public school boards are emerging as a key battleground in the culture wars between religious liberals and conservatives, according to a forthcoming TV documentary and a recent report by a watchdog group critical of the religious right.”New School Order,”a documentary scheduled to air in Public Broadcasting Service […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Local public school boards are emerging as a key battleground in the culture wars between religious liberals and conservatives, according to a forthcoming TV documentary and a recent report by a watchdog group critical of the religious right.”New School Order,”a documentary scheduled to air in Public Broadcasting Service markets Oct. 3, seeks to show the complexity of cultural, religious and philosophical clashes as school boards make decisions on such issues as multicultural and sex education courses, library policies, and textbook selection. Eds: Check local listings.)”I wanted people to come away with an understanding of how important school board races have become,”said Gini Reticker, producer and director of the hour-long film.”There’s a real fight over who’s going to control the schools.” The film, which focuses on turmoil in the North Penn School District in Lansdale, Pa., opens with a quote from Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive director:”I would rather elect 1,000 school board members than a single president because the future of America will be determined by the principal’s office, not the Oval Office.” A more adversarial look at local school board struggles comes from People For the American Way, a frequent critic of the Christian Coalition, in its report,”A Right Wing and a Prayer: The Religious Right and Your Public Schools.”The report, which PFAW began distributing earlier this month, accuses the religious right of an”assault”on the public schools in areas ranging from school reform and censorship to fights over teaching creation science and vouchers.

Matthew Freeman, senior vice president of PFAW, said the group hopes to alert people about what he called the”divisive impact”religious conservative are having on some communities.”Our principal purpose is that we want to paint the full picture of what we think the religious right is doing to the public schools and part of mobilizing a mainstream response is to get that information out,”Freeman said.

Christian Coalition spokesman Arne Owens, who was not familiar with the documentary but had seen PFAW’s report, defended conservative Christian activism on local school boards.”For a long time our supporters were not actively involved,”he said.”That may be part of the reason for public education going off in the direction that it’s gone, so our position is that there needs to be more involvement at the local level and we strongly encourage our supporters to become involved at the local level.” Owens said PFAW’s report is a”clear-cut attack”on his organization and said there should be more”reasoned discussion of the very serious problems that exist in public education today.” Both the PFAW report and the documentary, which was produced by the Independent Television Service, highlight Christian conservative successes in winning school board races and directing local education policy. Both note the conservatives have won by stressing issues unrelated to their religious values and because of the apathy of general population.

In the TV film’s case study, four of the nine Lansdale school-board members were members of the same 300-member conservative Christian church. One of the four, then-school board vice president, was an outspoken opponent of sex education and multicultural programs who had been accused of making an anti-Semitic remark. But many people paid more attention to her promise to cut back taxes, according to the film, and she was re-elected in a hotly contested race.

The PFAW report said religious conservatives have succeeded in large part because of apathy about school boards and low voter turnout. But one of it’s predictions was also borne out in the documentary’s reporting:”In many communities where the right gained majorities, however, that apathy soon turned into involvement and activism, as citizens realized that right-wing ideologues were now setting school district policy.” In interviews, both the liberals and conservatives agreed, however, that citizens need to pay more attention to local school issues.”It’s so much easier to keep tabs on national politics than on local politics because it comes screaming into your home, in your newspaper and on your television shows,”Freeman said.

At the close of the film, teacher Jim Finnemeyer comes to nearly the same conclusion as drawn by Reed at the film’s beginning:”Some of these local decisions will be great and some will be disasters, but at the end of the day regular moms and regular dads in regular old communities will get involved in the process and seize democracy at its grassroots _ which is really education.”

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