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Training Sessions Target Religious Right at the Grassroots

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Columbus, Ohio

On a gray and rainy Saturday, more than 60 people are gathered in the drab, windowless basement of the Ohio Education Association's building here. It's a heavy turnout, considering that the crowd in this sports-loving state could be at home watching football.

Instead, the group has given up a weekend day to learn how to fight attempts by religious conservatives to take control of local school boards. The packed room is a testament to the concern many public school supporters feel over the religious right's influence in central Ohio. All of the state's 735 school districts have school board elections next month.

Similar training sessions have taken place in Illinois, Michigan, and Texas and are scheduled for Wisconsin. They are part of an effort by People for the American Way, the liberal-leaning, Washington-based watchdog group that bills itself as a "voice against intolerance," to combat the religious right at the grassroots level.

Today's message: Moderates and liberals can fight back by mobilizing support for public schools, but they will have to form new alliances to be successful. The audience is a diverse group of teachers, union leaders, concerned grandparents, librarians, and representatives from women's groups and abortion-rights organizations, among others.

"This is not a religious movement," Mary Jean Collins, the national field director for People for the American Way, said of assaults on public schools by religious conservatives. "It's a political movement."

The way to fight it, she advised, is for supporters of public education to band together and work to identify conservative Christian candidates for school board seats. Public exposure, she said, makes it harder for people to run "stealth" campaigns, in which they keep their views private until after they have been elected, often by narrowly targeting voters who belong to supportive churches.

Losing at Polls

The six-hour training session earlier this month included an overview of the Christian Coalition, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Focus on the Family, and other active conservative Christian groups and a brief run-through of their criticisms of public education.

After showing a videotape of conservative Christian leaders criticizing public schools, feminists, homosexuals, Jews, liberals, and people who support the right to an abortion, Ms. Collins faced a somber room.

Polls conducted for her organization, she said, refute the Christian Coalition's claims that the majority of Americans support its "Contract With the American Family." The contract calls for enacting private school vouchers, ending welfare, abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, and other measures. (See Education Week, May 24, 1995.)

But the broad refutation of the Christian right's policies, however, has not translated into election victories. "We're winning in the polls, but not at the polls," Ms. Collins said. "We're here today to show we do have strong support for public education, but you wouldn't know it from the polls and some state policies."

The group watched a videotape made in Vista, Calif., where religious conservatives accused of running stealth campaigns took control of the school board in 1992. They moved quickly to modify the science curriculum to make it easier to teach creationism. Two years later, moderate candidates turned out the conservatives after they mobilized community support.

Moderates also have organized to turn back conservative Christian candidates in some Texas school districts and in the Lake County, Fla., district. (See Education Week, Nov. 16, 1994.)

Despite these publicized successes, people at the training session here said they believe school board candidates are still trying to get elected by hiding their views.

'Start Digging'

Bill Leibensperger, a high school history teacher in the Southwestern City schools and member of the OEA's executive committee, told the group that one board member in his community elected last year ran a stealth campaign. Two other religious conservatives, one of whom was open about his views, were defeated.

The board member who won a seat, Mr. Leibensperger said, exhibited what he now calls warning signs: He had a low profile in the community, refused to undergo the union's candidate screenings, and educated his children at home. Once elected, he unsuccessfully pressed to teach creationism.

"When candidates refuse to screen with you," he told the group, "start doing some digging."

Public school backers who form coalitions can share the duties necessary to inform the public about candidates, Mr. Leibensper-ger said. These include gathering basic information, holding public forums, devising candidate questionnaires on hot-button issues, monitoring letters to local newspapers, and joining and attending meetings of conservative Christian groups to keep tabs on their activities.

"The thing they fear most is exposure," said Michael Billirakis, the president of the oea. "You are not doing them any individual harm--you are doing what's right."

Doing the research and legwork necessary to monitor school board candidates, several speakers suggested, is too big a job for one organization. But forming community coalitions presents its own set of problems.

When Susan Bader of Ohioans Against Discrimination asked members of the audience to come up with the names of groups that could be rallied to support public schools, the suggestions ranged from the Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters to gay and lesbian groups, abortion-rights groups, and feminist organizations.

The inclusion of liberal organizations "will absolutely kill you in a lot of communities," cautioned Jean Droste, an education consultant and former school board member.

Volatile Mix

Members of the gathering seemed split on whether formal coalitions needed to be formed, or whether looser organizations that could gather periodically would suffice. But Ms. Collins urged people to consider forming a group with a name like "Parents and Friends of the Public Schools" to monitor education issues.

After a break for lunch, when participants were encouraged to sit with people from their communities and make plans to form coalitions, the training focused heavily on the mechanics of working with the press, developing candidate questionnaires and voter guides, holding candidate forums, and conducting get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Peter Montgomery, the deputy director of communications for People for the American Way, advised public school supporters to make it clear that they oppose the Christian right's agenda, not its religious beliefs. Otherwise, he warned, they could be accused of religious bigotry.

"The public is concerned about the mixing of religion and politics," he said, "especially where kids are involved."

One of the problems plaguing liberals and progressives, Ms. Collins said, is that they have failed to articulate their own values more clearly. That has allowed Christian extremists to claim the moral high ground, she said.

National Network

On a national level, People for the American Way is trying to build the same coalitions it recommends to combat assaults on public schools.

The organization, founded in 1980 by television producer Norman Lear and others in response to the rise of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's now-defunct Moral Majority, is now working at the grassroots level, where the Christian right has had its greatest successes.

In 19 states, the group has formed networks to bring together disparate organizations that have a stake in countering the religious right: moderate ministers, gay and lesbian groups, civil-rights and abortion-rights groups, social workers, and educators.

Robert Gast, the president of the Springfield Education Association and a former school board member, said he fears that candidates with a religious agenda will be elected in his Ohio district. Three such people are running for the board, he said, and face only write-in opposition.

"I'm hoping we can get together and form our own coalition," he said. "This training has been very helpful."

Vicki Hardesty, a librarian and the president of the Findlay Education Association, monitors censorship issues closely and has seen her district embroiled in a bitter debate over a health textbook that was challenged by community members.

Educators should listen closely to people who are concerned about issues, rather than dismissing them all as extremists, she said. That attention also can help defuse opposition that could build if people feel shut out of policymaking, she advised.

"I still contend that most complaints stem from individuals who are concerned," she said.

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