Letters to the Editor
Joseph L. Conn Managing Editor Church & State Magazine Americans United for Separation of Church and State Silver Spring, Md.
In responding to my essay opposing public funding for parochial and other private schools ("Making Private Schools 'More Equal,'" Education Week, Nov. 16, 1983), Richard Baer asks several questions in his essay ("On the Fairness of a State School Monopoly," Education Week, Dec. 21, 1983) about the fairness of my position. I respond.
Yes, it is fair for "those Americans who believe in freedom of conscience and freedom of teaching and learning to be forced to support a monopoly system of government schools." Government in the United States does not offer its benefits, services, and protections on a user-fee system. All Americans who pay taxes are asked to support essential public services whether they use them directly or not. Single taxpayers, married couples with no children, and older couples whose children are no longer in school must all contribute their taxes to the support of the public-school system. So must parents who patronize parochial schools. Certainly each of these people benefits whether their children are enrolled in public school or not. A democratic society could not function without an educated citizenry.
Yes, it is fair to confine tax support to the religiously neutral public schools. It truly would be a violation of the basic tenets of liberty to force taxpayers to contribute their resources to parochial schools that teach religious doctrines that taxpayers do not share. Contrary to Mr. Baer's assertions, it is not a "combination of bureaucrats, professional educators, and textbook publishers" that controls the public schools. It is the voting public. And there is no single monolithic system of "government schools." There are in fact some 14,000 separate, independent public-school districts, with governing boards that reflect the wonderful diversity that is America.
Yes, it is fair to maintain the religious neutrality of the public schools, and that includes banning the teaching of "secular humanism." However, contrary to Mr. Baer's assertion, there is little, if any, credible evidence that such a religion is being taught anywhere. The "first-rate scholars of national stature" that Mr. Baer cites to support his point are, in fact, political ideologues bent on destroying the public-school system.
Edward Jenkins, a professor at Indiana University and an expert on the topic, says "the secular-humanism charge is a well-planned, clever attack on the public schools designed by certain religio-political activists to accomplish several goals. They want to get rid of educational practices they do not like. ... They also want to restore prayer and Bible reading to the public schools. They want to turn the clock back at least three decades to make education resemble what some people think it was then. Ultimately, they want to destroy public education and replace it with government-funded private education. But most fundamentally, they want to impose one specific view of the world, of religion, and of reality on the entire nation."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has long offered to go to court to free any public school held captive by secular humanists. So far, no one has offered a shred of evidence admissible in court to support such a charge.
Finally, it is fair to oppose parochial-school educators who seek public funds, because such funding would violate a basic American constitutional principle--the separation of church and state. Certainly, there has been religious strife in American history, but it has been slight compared to the terrible religious intolerance in other countries without the separation principle. The independence and vitality of church schools can best be preserved by protecting their financial integrity. Government funds would (and should) bring government controls. Taxpayers would have a right to see that their funds were not spent to subsidize discrimination in any form. And virtually all religious schools, by their very nature, discriminate in religious matters.
Mr. Baer challenged the "intellectual bankruptcy and lack of historical perspective" of Americans United. Such invective is unfortunate and unnecessary in this important debate. I do not believe Mr. Baer is "intellectually bankrupt"; he is just wrong.
Robert Primack Editor Foundations Monthly Newsletter College of Education, University of Florida Gainesville, Fla.
Richard Baer's notion of what constitutes fairness on the tuition tax-credit issue is remarkably similar to my undergraduates' notion of what constitutes fairness. There is a peculiar correspondence between those who receive an A from me and are thereby convinced I am Olympian in my judgments, and those who receive an F and are absolutely convinced that I am Satan's spawn.
It is not terribly original to point out, but necessary in this case, that what constitutes "fairness" is very frequently determined by whose ox is being gored. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church gets a free ride on my tax money to propagandize for the use of various federal and state powers to limit some common forms of birth control. I happen to believe--based not on blind faith, but on sound scientific evidence--that the lack of planned-parenthood techniques threatens the survival of the human race. Is it fair that my tax burden is greater and I therefore cannot contribute as much to a cause that I believe in because the Church's tax burden is nonexistent?
But before we settle the fairness issue finally and for all time, we ought to examine both the historical causes and the philosophical motives that prompted that unique creation known at the common-school movement in these United States. The two basic assumptions that drove Horace Mann and the rest of that gallant crew were: One, there were vast numbers of children growing up uneducated, and this was a threat to the survival of the Republic; and two, the most desirable form of public education in a pluralistic society was one that provides significant common experiences in order that this pluralistic society not be torn apart by religious, social, and economic strife.
To the extent that there were not common shared experiences, the Republic was in danger of going the way of many European societies that had split along religious or socioeconomic lines. (What is going on now in Ireland should be enough of a frightening example for Mr. Baer.)
That the ideal of the common school was never fully realized is, of course, no reason to turn our backs on it now. On the contrary, those of us who are educators must redouble our efforts to bring the vision of Horace Mann closer to realization because now, more than ever, the survival of the nation depends on it.
But let me expose one other absurd judgment Mr. Baer attempts to promulgate, namely the so-called monolithic nature of the American system of public education. Commonality does not ensure monopoly by any means. In 50 states, with hundreds of independent school boards, with millions of teachers, with a vast variety of student populations, to talk of the philosophical or any other kind of monopoly of education raises as big a golem of a straw man as ever appeared in an educational publication. Are kids in a rural school in Arkansas, kids in Scarsdale, N.Y., and kids in a Harlem school all pressed into the same philosophical, methodological, and curricular mold? Have they ever been? A common school need not, should not, and has never been a monolithic school.
The most valuable gift we can give all our children is to send them to a common school that really works. Anything that takes away from the endeavor, as tuition tax credits certainly will, is profoundly subversive of that American ideal. We should privatize and separate in so far as is possible our religious, ethnic, and political beliefs from the American schoolhouse. America provides enough freedom, leisure, and money for most of its citizens to inculcate their children outside the schoolhouse with any private peculiarities parents want to force-feed them with, from astrology to creationism to Zen Buddhism. Under our American system, even if our public schools were bound and determined to be monolithic, there is no way they could produce robots. Tomorrow morning, under our Constitution, Mr. Baer, if he so desires, could start up the Reverend Jim Jones Suicide Memorial School. Should my tax money be forced to pay for that?
Our children face some terribly difficult times ahead, probably more difficult than any in the history of the nation. They need a fundamental common experience if they are to cooperate successfully in solving their future problems. Tuition tax credits will, in the long run, with their segregating tendencies, prove even more destructive to the common national effort than racial segregation was. They are a formula for disaster.
Patrick M. Sheehan Chairman Education Department Trinity College Deerfield, Ill.
Regarding your article, "State Chiefs Seek End to Ed.-School Requirement for Teachers" (Education Week, Dec. 7, 1983), it seems to me that the members of this august body are speaking out of both sides of their respective mouths. On the one hand, we are told that doing away with undergraduate education courses as a requirement for teacher certification is desirable. On the other hand, we are informed that a fifth year should be added to undergraduate teacher training.
If there is no need for education courses for prospective teachers, why is an extra year needed? What, in fact, is "teacher training" under their proposal? If education classes are not needed, we should be able to turn out "teachers" in three and a half years.
Daniel J. Maloney Director Ocean Tides School Narragansett, R.I.
At a time when every possible solution is being considered in an effort to improve education in this country, I was horrified to read Edmund Janko's Commentary, "Uncle Miltie's Inservice Special: The Teacher as Stand-Up Comic" (Education Week, Dec. 14, 1983).
While humor definitely has a place in our schools, the type of laughter Mr. Janko proposes does not. To encourage teachers to develop "coping" skills at the students' expense will only serve to lead education on a deteriorating course.
Is it any wonder that there are problems in education when students are considered dullards who should be "put down" and "skewered with venom-dipped words"?
Look at successful schools. There you will find caring teachers who seek to motivate, encourage, and reinforce students' sense of self worth. There you will find the blend of skill building, problem solving, and positive relationships between students and teachers. There you won't find a venomous Uncle Miltie!
Hendrik D. Gideonse Dean College of Education, University of Cincinnati Cincinnati, Ohio
The prominence you gave to President Reagan's speech at the National Forum on Excellence in Education in Indianapolis last month ("Forum Said Successful in Rallying Support for Change," Education Week, Dec. 14, 1983, and "Text of the President's Speech at the National Forum on Excellence," Education Week, Dec. 21, 1983) prompts me to share the following assessment.
There was, I submit, broad agreement among conference participants on several points: Reforming American education will take time and will be a complex undertaking necessarily embracing both higher and elementary and secondary education. Looking for scapegoats will only prove unproductive and debilitating because all of us are to blame in one way or another; conversely, we all have roles to play in improving education. More money will be needed, and it will be needed from local, state, and federal sources. Entry-level salaries of teachers are far too low. Preservice and inservice education of professionals is seriously undersupported. There is much we do not know and considerable demand for the design and construction of materials, techniques, and equipment that will support teachers in improving their instructional effectiveness. No money should be spent, however, unless it is tied to real reform. Merit pay, seductively simple, is a dead issue because it is too difficult to implement, misses too many marks, and sets in motion secondary consequences even worse than the conditions it was intended to correct.
These conclusions were accompanied by a broad-based, insistent, and cooperative resolve to work together, across roles and between levels of government, to continue beyond the initial steps that have been taken to bring about fundamental reform.
Given the context of the conference, then, President Reagan's final address to the forum was almost stunning in its misjudgment of the importance and meaning of what had taken place. His speech was the typical honeyed performance we have come to expect; the first of its six essential elements was itself a six-part exhortation: "You folks go out there and do these things!" But the order of the President's listing, widely reported on television and in the press, clearly implied that America's educational problems are caused mainly by undisciplined students. Even more sensationalistic was his implication that American schools are "drug dens" that need only to be turned back into "temples of learning." These self-indulgent, finger-pointing characterizations and the prominence given them by the President contrasted sharply with the otherwise conciliatory, yet purposeful, tone of the gathering.
President Reagan then exhumed two hoary elements of his "educational-reform program"--tuition tax credits and school prayer. What either has to contribute to the reform of public education in America is, at best, obscure. The universal scoffing reaction to his identical response to the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education last April should have persuaded him not to make the same mistake twice!
The fourth plank in President Reagan's reform agenda was to call again for merit pay. The recommendation drew scattered applause, to be sure, but more came from the ranks of the hundreds who had been admitted to the hall in addition to the forum attendees--those who were not aware that there had been a shift away from merit pay during the first few days of the conference.
Item five of the President's remarks was the explicit rejection of additional funding from the federal government, which he called "tax recycling."
The only initiative President Reagan brought to the impressive assemblage of America's political and educational leaders--who had heard more than one speaker despair over the reversal of values implicit in our glorification of athletics--was a new program of Presidential Academic Fitness Awards modeled after the President's Physical Fitness Awards. The program will no doubt work wonders to overcome the disorderly behavior President Reagan decried, dispatch the drug pushers from the high-school playgrounds, and generate the base salaries and career and professional incentives required to recruit and retain more academically capable individuals in teaching!
President Reagan's speech was not simply a misjudgment of the tone of the conference; it did, in fact, demean the seriousness of purpose and willingness to engage in common cause that, I believe, represented the true character of what took place under Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell's leadership. The task confronting local and state agencies and the public at large is a huge one. All of us will have to change--policymakers, teachers, administrators, teacher educators, parents, and others. Important first steps have been taken, but far more remains to be done.
Excepting the essential irrelevance of President Reagan's speech, the national forum afforded education leaders an opportunity to discover and reaffirm the common aims that bind them together, to identify differing views still requiring resolution, and to take heart from the knowledge that the impetus for reform is universally shared.
Vol. 03, Issue 17, Pages 19-20