On Nov. 3, in polling places across the country, Americans will elect thousands of their fellow citizens to local school boards. In the time-honored tradition of local control, these women and men will have the power to hire and fire, set standards, determine curriculum, and purchase teaching materials. If Robert Simonds, the subject of this month’s cover story on page 18, has his way, many of the newly elected will be conservative Christians determined to “take back” the public schools. Simonds heads a national organization that is working to elect school board members because he believes that “only godly Christians can truly qualify for this critically important position.” Presumably, majorities of conservative Christians can then carry out his agenda, which includes teaching creationism, restoring prayer to classrooms, restricting sex education, and getting rid of, among other things, year-round schooling, cooperative education, whole language, outcome-based learning, multiculturalism, self-esteem programs, and site-based management. He and his members also have strong opinions about which books do not belong in school libraries—Roald Dahl’s The Witches, for example, and the controversial Impressions reading series.
Although Simonds declares that the separation of church and state is a “socialist myth” perpetrated by liberals (who apparently can’t be real Christians), it is a principle embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court—both for the good of the church and the good of the state.
This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t be elected to public office, or Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists, for that matter. But once sworn in, they are obligated to represent the public interest—and not the interests of any religion. They certainly have no right to impose their beliefs and their dogma on everyone else.
In the 1963 school-prayer case, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark referred to “the command of the First Amendment that the government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.” He acknowledged that schools can teach about religion and the Bible “as a part of a secular program of education.” But he warned against lowering the barrier between church and state, asserting that any “breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent.” Among their many responsibilities, school boards have a duty to maintain that neutrality.
In her charming autobiographical essay beginning on page 26, Wendy Costa makes a compelling, albeit amusing, case for electing people to school boards who understand that their first priority must be to provide efficient schools that offer a high-quality education for every child. Without preaching at all, she also makes one wonder whether many local school boards are really capable of doing that.
A special report in Education Week last spring also makes one wonder. It pointed out that school boards are widely viewed as being committed to the status quo, preoccupied with minutiae, captive of special interests, and ill-equipped to adapt schools to the changing needs of students and society. They are, according to one educator, “not just superfluous; they are also dysfunctional.”
School boards are supposed to act as a buffer to shield schools from political interference. But in fact, they tend to be highly political. Indeed, school board members make up the largest group of elected officials in the United States, and election to the school board is a common launching pad for a political career.
Despite the mounting criticism of school boards, they still graze in the pasture of sacred cows. One expert on school governance believes they will endure because they “are part of the fabric of American culture.” But if Americans value local control, why is it that usually fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters vote in school board elections?
Robert Simonds is aware of that fact. He’s counting on it. “Most elections are won on 1 percent to 3 percent of the vote,” he tells his members. “If only 10,000 vote in your district, that means 100-300 voters could elect the entire new school board.”
That makes “taking back” the public schools seem like a piece of cake.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Taking Back The Schools