Bible School, SuperS’cuse Me, and Freedom for Fidgeters

By Scott J. Cech — March 29, 2006 4 min read
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Redefining forever that old trope about a “textbook case,” Georgia is about to become the first state to make the Bible an approved text in public schools. If Governor Sonny Perdue, as expected, signs the bill approved in recent days by the legislature, Peach State students will soon be able to take electives on the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments. The idea of treating the perennially best-selling tome as a school subject isn’t new, but the Georgia law would break new ground by requiring that the Bible be the core text. Without the classes, said Tommie Williams, the state senate majority leader who sponsored the measure, “If we’re teaching a kid what the Good Samaritan law was about, they wouldn’t know.” Though the bill requires that the subject be taught “in an objective and nondevotional manner,” state legal scholars are already doubting whether the notion is constitutional. The class might, however, suffer from an even more fundamental defect: lack of attendance. “Nobody has come to us requesting it,” said state education department spokesman Dana Tofig.

A constitutional crisis of a more local sort erupted recently at a school outside Philadelphia, where the filmmaker behind the documentary Super Size Me served his audience of students, teachers, and staff a big helping of equal-opportunity insults. Morgan Spurlock’s hour-long, expletive-spiced presentation at Hatboro-Horsham High School’s inaugural health fair ran far afield of his ostensible subject—the perils of junk food—and included cracks about “retarded kids in the back wearing helmets” and the school’s teachers smoking marijuana. Though the lines got big laughs from students, and he was mobbed with applause and autograph seekers afterwards, administrators were predictably upset. Spurlock claimed he’d given the school a lesson in free speech, and in a blog posting, he set the record straight about allegations that he insulted teachers: "[I]n actuality, all I was doing was making a joke at their expense for the enjoyment of the students.”

Speaking of expense, a group of administrators in Maryland may have gone too far. Apparently tired of just complaining that education is underfunded, nearly 20 schools in the state decided to do something about it—namely, give money to public officials, presumably in hopes of persuading them that the schools need more money. According to campaign finance records, since 2000, politicians have received nearly $6,000 from schools, both public and private, some of which receive government funding. Federal law prohibits nonprofit organizations, including many private schools, from giving to campaigns, and the Maryland attorney general’s office said the contributions would “not be a proper use of public funds.” Randallstown Elementary School is listed as making a $150 donation to a local official six years ago, but principal Marcel Hall said she couldn’t recall attending any political events. Whether or not the school actually gave, she said, the direction of the transaction is uncharacteristic. “That’s not something we do normally. We’re always trying to get things, not give somebody something.”

The law of diminishing returns also seems applicable in California, where soda pop, which is being eradicated from schools, may be making a comeback if one teenager has anything to say about it. Swimming against the national trend of replacing vending machines’ Cokes and similar drinks with healthier alternatives, Shasta High Student Union President Rocky Slaughter is gathering money for a statewide measure to again allow their sale. The proposed initiative would allow sodas to occupy half the space in school vending machines that also feature nutritional information about the different beverages so students could make an informed choice. “Now it’s like the Prohibition movement, and we all saw what happened with that,” Slaughter said, referring to current state law, which mandates the phaseout of all carbonated drinks in school by July 2009. The senior concedes that gathering 373,816 valid signatures—the number needed to qualify for the ballot—will be difficult. But he points out: “We’re allowed to drive a car. We’re allowed to shoot guns. ... So why can’t we make decisions about nutrition?”

Also on the health front, a school in Rochester, Minnesota, is trying a new way to deal with kids who habitually fidget: Let ‘em do it—it might be good for them. In an experiment to help fight childhood obesity, all the desks and chairs have been removed from Phil Rynearson’s classroom, and his 4th and 5th graders are being allowed to get up and move around whenever they want. As part of the pilot, motion detectors set up in the room record the students’ movement as they bounce from computers to iPods to big exercise balls. The data will eventually be compared to that of their chair-bound peers, but Rynearson and his superintendent say anecdotal evidence so far suggests that the more mobile group is more focused on the curriculum than other classes. Not everyone thinks the constant motion and chairless environment are such a great idea, however. “My legs get tired,” said student Mariah Matrious.

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