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Money Woes Seen Weakening N.C. Religion Effort

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North Carolina's fiscal woes may be undermining the state's widely noted attempt to bring discussion of the role of religion in history and literature back into the classroom, educators said last week.

Faced with a budget crunch, the legislature this summer eliminated funding for training teachers to implement the religion program, which was proposed last year by the state board of education.

As a result, backers of the plan are warning, many teachers may provide students incorrect or biased information about the subject--or shy away from it entirely.

"We've been given a mandate to do something, but we've got no support to do it with," said Sarah Stewart, president of the North Carolina Federation of Teachers.

The state board endorsed the plan to include more about religion in the curriculum in response to national studies that concluded that references to the topic had been largely purged from public schools.

The board's move was hailed as a breakthrough enabling other states and textbook companies to proceed with long-discussed plans for including religion in history and culture curricula, according to Charles C. Haynes, project director of the Americans United Research Foundation.

California is embarking on a similar effort this year, Mr. Haynes noted.

'Recipe for Trouble'

The North Carolina plan was to be implemented along with a comprehensive teacher-training program that would cover both the content of the new curriculum and the legal issues arising from the First Amendment's ban on state establishment of religion, said John D. Ellington, director of social studies for the state education department.

The training would provide teachers with a "specific framework on what is constitutionally permissible, educationally sound, and culturally sensitive," Mr. Haynes said.

But the $15,000 slated for two summer training sessions fell to the budget ax and the planned inservice-training sessions have not materialized.

Now, warned William Nord, director of the program in humanities and human values at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, state schools are left with "a recipe for trouble."

According to Mr. Nord, who has conducted several workshops for educators on church-state issues, untrained teachers face two possible perils in implementing the state board's recommendations.

Without the aid of textbooks on religion in history and culture, teachers could get the facts wrong, he said. Or, he added, they may mis8take their new assignment for permission to proselytize for their own religion.

"They may have the best intentions, but be so limited in their understanding of the situation that they end up indoctrinating," Mr. Nord said, adding that the state's overwhelming Protestant majority could lull teachers into unconscious sectarianism.

"They might think, 'Everyone is Protestant. Most of them are Baptist. If I'm going to teach about religion, why don't I just teach about everyone's religion, Protestantism,"' he speculated.

But a more likely outcome, Mr. Nord said, is that teachers "will be so concerned about the controversial nature [of the subject], so ignorant about what the law says, and so ignorant about religions other than their own, they'll be scared to bring it up."

Dot R. Case, an Edneyville high-school teacher who served on the committee that recommended the religion plan, agreed.

"I feel that training eventually will be integrated into the plan," she said. "But until then, I think everyone will just stand on the sidelines and see what happens."

Teachers Seen Able To Manage

A different view was expressed by Representative David H. Diamont, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who said teachers will manage without state-funded training. Although some may err on the side of caution, he predicted, the new focus will not be ignored.

The state had no choice but to cut some education funding, he said. Lawmakers asked the state department to make the cuts, and the department chose teacher training.

"But if the schools feel they need training, they can handle it," Mr. Diamont added. "If local schoolteachers feel they need help, it would be very simple to gather those teachers together and do some extra work."

Mr. Ellington of the state department pointed out that most state funding for such staff-development activities as training flows directly to local school boards. Districts could use those resources for teacher training on religion, he said.

At the same time, Mr. Ellington added, the state has an obligation to carry through the project, because a state task force recommended the inservice training, the state adopted the panel's recommendations, and the state curriculum has traditionally been centralized.

Mr. Diamont, a high-school social-studies teacher, said teachers in his field have been touching on church-state issues for years and are aware of the legal questions.

Mr. Haynes agreed that teachers may be selling themselves short.

"I don't think there is a teacher in the public schools who has received no training," he said. "They've all been exposed to religious ideas and themes."

Mr. Haynes also noted that supplemental materials on the subject are proliferating. He pointed to a new religious-liberty curriculum developed by a coalition of educators and religious leaders in cooperation with the Williamsburg Charter Foundation, a nonsectarian public-policy project aimed at forging a national consensus on religion in public life. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1988.)

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