Seeking a Cease-Fire in School Ideology Wars

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New Orleans

Ideological conflicts between public schools, communities, and conservative religious groups dominated the agenda at a national conference of school administrators here last week.

In a speech at the 127th annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley urged schools "to be open to religious expression." But the Secretary also called on "religious-minded parents to build bridges, and not see schools as the enemy."

In a 20-minute speech, Mr. Riley stressed that the debates over values in schools, outcomes-based education, and sex-education curricula have often been destructive forces that have distracted districts from the true work of education.

"I encourage you to find common ground," Secretary Riley urged the audience of more than 1,000 superintendents, principals, and school board members. "Schools should not be ideological battlegrounds."

After Mr. Riley's speech, three panelists led an hourlong discussion on ways to span the philosophical divides.

Robert L. Simonds, a panelist and the president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a Christian group that has sponsored thousands of school board candidates across the country, kicked off the discussion. He said that productive dialogue must begin by discarding stereotypes.

"We have to get away from the idea that these people are radical Christian nuts and get this discussion back into focus on children," Mr. Simonds told the audience. "We have to get back to having faith in each other before we can have peace in our schools."

Another panelist, Kathryn Whitfill, the president of the National pta, also warned the audience against the "tunnel vision" she sees in schools. She said the fact that school leaders and conservative Christian groups often refuse to acknowledge each other's viewpoints can stall progress on school reforms.

The forum was one of several conference activities organized by an A.A.S.A. task force called "Seeking Common Ground for Improvement of Public Education." The task force--a coalition of national education associations, conservative religious organizations, and citizens' groups--has held several meetings in the past year in an attempt to inform the debate. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1994.)

In another session, Mr. Simonds and his longtime adversary, William G. Spady, a Colorado-based consultant and an architect of outcomes-based education, took the peacemaking theme a bit further. Speaking in a packed meeting room, they outlined ways to help school officials and parents reach consensus.

Mr. Simonds has criticized outcomes-based education as an approach that strays from the educational basics, and Mr. Spady has decried Mr. Simonds' religious-based educational approach.

But with the help of a mediator, Mr. Spady explained, the adversaries have learned to move past the stereotypes and face the fear of working with "the enemy."

They concentrated at first on finding subjects they agreed on, then worked from there, Mr. Spady said. Speakers at the well-attended session preached that true reconciliation demanded that the parties be good, patient listeners.

"We built an understanding on tiny strands of agreement," said Mr. Spady, who plans to sponsor with Mr. Simonds a National Center for Reconciliation and Educational Reform at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley. "The hardest thing was to start to talk."

In his keynote address at the conference, Cornel West placed the ideological battles into a larger context.

"Paranoia is one of the greatest threats now facing our democracy," Mr. West, a Harvard University professor and the author of the best-selling book Race Matters, said. "It pushes education to the margins."

Mr. West said racism, anti-Semitism, and all shades of intolerance stem from a lack of understanding. Education, he added, is vital to replacing "pervasive, destructive name-calling" with a rigorous discussion of traditions and histories.

Also at the conference, the A.A.S.A.'s Delegates Assembly approved a policy to encourage schools and communities to offer developmentally appropriate education for all children beginning at age 3. Some schools already offer preschool programs, but most start at age 4.

Members of the 16,500-member association also placed on the record their views that property taxes should not be the primary source of funding for public education.

"Additional sources of revenue to support public education are desperately needed," an A.A.S.A. statement said.

--Jessica Portner

Vol. 14, Issue 22

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