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Fla. Union Vows To Fight District's 'Americanism' Policy

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A Florida teachers' union last week said it will file a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn a district's new policy requiring that students be taught that American culture is "superior'' to others.

Officials of the Florida Education Association/United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said they expected to file suit in state court early this week to challenge the policy approved this month by the Lake County, Fla., school board.

Gary Landry, an F.E.A. spokesman, said the union will file suit in Tavares, the Lake County seat, on behalf of parents, students, and the 1,400-member Lake County Education Association.

The union will argue in the suit that the new policy directly contradicts a two-year-old state law on multiculturalism, Mr. Lander said.

Observers said the new policy, which was supported by a bloc of conservative board members, apparently is an overt challenge to that law, which declares, in part, that multiculturalism is designed to help "eliminate personal and national ethnocentrism so that [students] understand that a specific culture is not intrinsically superior or inferior to another.''

Doug Jamerson, the state education commissioner, has denounced the Lake County policy as contrary to the law.

But John Van Giesen, a spokesman for the Florida education department, said the state is unlikely to impose sanctions on the school board. He cited the pre-eminence of local control.

Strong Reactions

The lawsuit would be the most dramatic reaction yet to the policy, which has become a national cause celebre, striking a chord across the political spectrum.

Anna Quindlen, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, has derided the decision in print, while Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative syndicated columnist, has celebrated it.

Thomas E. Sanders, the superintendent of the district, said last week that he was slightly perplexed--and increasingly irritated--by all the national attention the policy has received.

Mr. Sanders, a former history teacher, said the policy does not spell out any values that teachers have not already tried to inculcate in their students.

"We believe strongly in Americanism and that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world in which to live. And we always have,'' he said.

"I'm just as patriotic as they come,'' he added. "But I've always felt that the United States is a country of many cultures.''

What is objectionable to many, he acknowledged, is the inclusion of the word "superior'' in the closing sentence of the one-paragraph policy.

The policy indicates that while teachers should comply with state law to teach about other cultures, the instruction should "instill ... an appreciation of our American heritage and culture such as: our republican form of government, capitalism, a free-enterprise system, patriotism, strong family values, freedom of religion, and other basic values that are superior to other foreign or historic cultures.''

Most media accounts have noted that the policy was adopted shortly after the five school board members recited the Pledge of Allegiance and a school chorus sang "It's a Grand Old Flag.''

Mr. Sanders pointed out that the pledge is regularly recited at board meetings and that the chorus had been scheduled to sing for several months.

Three-Member Bloc

Patricia H. Hart, the board chairwoman and a self-described conservative Christian, championed the new policy.

Ms. Hart is one of a three-member conservative bloc that, since coming to power two years ago, has refused federal Head Start money, attempted to infuse creationism in the science curriculum, and sought to restrict the content of sex-education courses.

And it seems clear, most observers agreed, that the new policy is philosophically in agreement with other changes the board majority has promoted.

'This situation didn't develop overnight, but this particular development did,'' Mr. Landry of the F.E.A. said.

Ms. Hart did not return telephone calls last week. But in published reports, she has noted as evidence of America's cultural superiority that "thousands of people risk life and limb every day to come to America because they know this is the land of the free.''

While the policy change has angered some and heartened others, it appears to have left local school administrators mystified about how to implement the directive, which Superintendent Sanders characterized as "vaguely written.''

"We're really trying to get from the board a more specific definition about what's intended,'' he said.

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