Law & Courts

Closer Ties Sought Between Schools, Religious Groups

By Alan Richard — November 17, 1999 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: An article on ties between schools and religious groups in the Nov. 17 issue incorrectly described Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools David W. Hornbeck as an ordained minister. He holds theology degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Oxford University but has not been ordained.

In a hotel ballroom here last week, Philadelphia Superintendent David W. Hornbeck welcomed 300 educators and representatives from a broad range of religious organizations for four days of sermons, speeches, and workshops.

Their goal: to bolster a fledgling movement seeking closer ties between schools and houses of faith by building an army of religious people to support public education. During a speech, Mr. Hornbeck, himself an ordained minister, chose words that showed the seriousness, passion, and—some critics would say—gall that form his unwavering opinion that compassionate people will help save public schools.

“We are approaching a time ... when faithful children’s advocates will have to gather in much the same way Dr. King called his people to Washington,” Mr. Hornbeck said in a speech to the conference last week, referring to the historic march the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led in 1963. “Let us accelerate our advocacy. Make public education the next major civil rights issue in this nation.”

The superintendent’s words, spoken at the National Council of Churches’ convention in Cleveland and telecast to the conference participants in Philadelphia, may refuel debate over appropriate relationships between churches and public schools—and the heated and prolonged battle over school funding in Pennsylvania.

A Careful Dance

The Nov. 7-10 conference was sponsored by a partnership of the Philadelphia district, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., an ecumenical group.

Organizers said registration fees mostly paid for the event, which highlighted efforts under way in Philadelphia to forge closer bonds between schools and religious groups.

Mr. Hornbeck said he had directed leaders in each section of the 210,000-student system to form partnerships between schools and churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples in their neighborhoods.

Later this month, the superintendent and other educators plan to rally in the state capital, Harrisburg, to lobby for more school spending. The result, Mr. Hornbeck hopes, will be a revolution. “I believe there will be a coming together in support of children,” he said.

Many of the speakers addressed the conference in emotional and personal terms.

Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who is scheduled to be ordained a Baptist minister Dec. 12, called in a speech for people of faith to help schoolchildren in new ways.

Mr. Goode told a personal story, about how he moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina to attend high school. A guidance counselor at his new school directed him to take vocational courses—and told him he should give up on college. He did at first.

But, he said, after working for a year in a cigar factory, he enrolled in college on advice from his pastor: “My school said you cannot. My church said, yes you can!”

“We can tell our children on this day in Philadelphia that we’re going to take a stand for them,” said Mr. Goode, who was mayor from 1984 to 1992 and is currently a deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. department of Education.

Following the Rules

Among the other speakers were: Rabbi David Saperstein, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; the author Lisbeth B. Schorr; presidential adviser and Harvard University professor Christopher Edley Jr.; and the Rev. Charles G. Adams of Detroit.

Throughout the conference, scholars on church-state issues lectured on how to form partnerships that follow the law.

First Amendment scholar Charles C. Haynes of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., who helped organize a new book of principles on school-church relationships, told the conference that schools and houses of faith can work together if they are mindful of the law and considerate of different viewpoints.

He said religious organizations can provide such services as tutors and mentors and after-school programs without fear of legal trouble—if they follow federal guidelines and ecumenical principles for such work.

“Forget the lawyers. Worry about conscience. If we follow the guidelines, there’s no need for lawyers,” Mr. Haynes said.

Laying It on the Line

Mr. Hornbeck attended the first two days of the conference, then flew to Cleveland to address national Christian leaders on Nov. 9.

His speech there was broadcast by satellite to the Philadelphia gathering. In it, he argued that if Philadelphia’s schools were financially supported like those in neighboring suburbs, the city would receive hundreds of millions more dollars each year for public schools.

And, as he has done almost since the beginning of his tenure as superintendent in 1994, he characterized the state’s current political priorities as immoral, unfair, and unjust.

The speech drew harsh criticism from Republican Gov. Tom Ridge’s spokesman. “We believe there’s 100 percent opportunity for us to achieve these goals together,” the spokesman, Tim Reeves, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Instead, day in and day out, we get Superintendent Hornbeck’s ‘we are good, you are evil.’ It’s just not true, and it does absolutely nothing to achieve his goal.”

In an interview back in Philadelphia after the conference, Mr. Hornbeck said he was hopeful that the city’s recent mayoral election would help his faith-based plan to enlist volunteers and political support for schools.

The superintendent and the mayor-elect, Democrat John F. Street, worked together on school issues when Mr. Street was a City Council member. As mayor, Mr. Street will appoint the school board.

“I would love to be superintendent until at least 2008,” Mr. Hornbeck said. That tenure would give him oversight of all 12 years of his improvement plan, which already is showing improved student test scores.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Closer Ties Sought Between Schools, Religious Groups

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