Robert Simonds and his Citizens for Excellence in Education are leading a controversial crusade to get conservative Christians elected to school boards. It's all part of his plan to put God back into the public schools
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn. —Proverbs 29:2
On top of Robert Simonds' office desk is a well-thumbed copy of the Bible, resting prominently on a small platform. On this sunny morning, it's open to the Book of Psalms, and passages here and there are highlighted or underlined. Simonds, an evangelical Christian and a former minister, believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible. And just as the Bible divides the people of the world into the righteous and the wicked, Simonds divides his world into two opposing camps. On one side are those who, like Simonds, believe that Christian parents must “take back” the public schools. On the other side is (in Simonds' words) “the left-wing education establishment,” which includes groups such as the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way.
Simonds is the president of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a grassroots ministry dedicated to restoring Christian values in the public schools. Simonds founded CEE in 1983 as a spinoff of his other organization, the National Association of Christian Educators, but it has since become his primary focus. From a small office in a light-industrial section of Santa Ana, Calif., Simonds is waging his “war of values.” And the battle lines are clearly drawn. “We have a war here between two groups,” he says. “One is an atheistic-oriented group, and the other is an American-heritage group, that is, people who believe that Judeo-Christian society is America's heritage, and that's what made this country great.”
In 1985, Simonds published a 65-page booklet titled How to Elect Christians to Public Office, which urged Christians to run for school board elections. “We need strong school board members who know right from wrong,” Simonds wrote. “The Bible, being the only true source on right and wrong, should be the guide of board members. Only godly Christians can truly qualify for this critically important position. …" Simonds, who has been accused of toning down his message for general audiences, says: “I wouldn't say it in that way now because there's too much that could be misunderstood. It's OK to say that to a Christian because what I'm really saying there is, we need people who believe in morality, and Christianity is where you find the strictest code of morality.”
Hairsplitting aside, Simonds continues to make the booklet available to CEE's members (he claims there are 130,000 of them), who pay $20 a year to join his crusade. And getting conservative Christians elected to school boards has become one of the group's main tasks. Simonds maintains that in November 1991 local CEE chapters helped elect 1,257 school board members nationwide, and he predicts that on Nov. 3, 3,000 more Christian candidates will win school board seats.
Critics say that it's impossible to verify Simonds' claims. Because CEE is a nonprofit organization, Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit the organization from openly endorsing political candidates. In addition, detractors have accused some Christian candidates of running “stealth” campaigns, in which candidates attempt to conceal their agendas from the media and the public. Further, Simonds refuses to identify school board members who have been elected with the help of CEE, for fear that they will be persecuted.
Still, many observers agree that CEE is a force to be taken seriously. People for the American Way calls CEE “easily the most destructive censorship organization active in the schools today.” And in San Diego County, where a number of conservative Christians won school board seats in 1990, a coalition of parents, teachers, and concerned citizens has formed to fight the growing political influence there of the religious right. “The movement is led by an organization called Citizens for Excellence in Education, a clever but deceptive name,” says Michael Parrish, a history professor at the University of California at San Diego and chairman of the Community Coalition Network. “What could be a more benign goal than being for excellence in education? But citizens must beware. This is no gift horse; this is a Trojan horse, erected to subvert public, nonsectarian education.”
Organizing For Battle
In How to Elect Christians to Public Office, Simonds offers this advice on how Christian candidates should deal with reporters: “Remember, get your points across, at all costs. And remember to smile no matter how direct the interviewer may attack you. Be kind in all answers and do not allow yourself the luxury of anger or offense.” Simonds, apparently, takes his own advice; in person, he is nothing if not hospitable. An animated man with graying hair, Simonds looks younger than his 67 years. He fingers a blue pen throughout the interview, using it to emphasize his points from time to time. When he becomes agitated, the only noticeable change in his demeanor is that his normally high-pitched voice becomes even higher. The smile rarely leaves his face.
During a two-hour conversation, Simonds offers a stinging attack on America's public schools. God, he says, has been taken away from the classroom. Students are being taught that there are no such things as “right and wrong.” School boards are in the hands of the teachers' unions. The NEA is an “outlaw organization.” Self-esteem programs are a “farce.” Multicultural curricula are teaching students “how to have class wars.” The Impressions reading series is “the worst thing that's ever hit public education in the history of our nation.” Global education “seeks to alter a student's thinking and training away from patriotism, traditional family values, America's free-enterprise system, and capitalism.” The separation of church and state is a “socialist myth” perpetrated by the ACLU.
“Every society ill that we've got today is spawned right in our classrooms,” Simonds says, flatly. And the best way to change the schools is for concerned Christians to go straight to the power source: school boards. “School boards,” he asserts, “in effect, control everything that's taught in our classrooms. … What we can do is educate the parents on what's happening in their school system, tell them what they can do about it, and then show them how to get elected.”
Even critics of CEE admit that How to Elect Christians to Public Office is a savvy primer on grassroots politics. Its bottom-line message: Get organized for battle. In the booklet, Simonds urges Christians to count the number of evangelical churches in their area and estimate the number of potential votes. “How?” he asks. “Step by step, please, with the pastor's willingness to help register all voters at his church who are not registered. It is estimated that 50 percent to 60 percent of all evangelical church members are still not registered to vote in their area.” Because school board elections traditionally suffer from low voter turnout, Simonds reminds “every Christian” to vote on election day. “Most elections are won on 1 percent to 3 percent of the vote,” he writes. “If only 10,000 vote in your district, that means 100-300 voters could elect the entire new school board.”
Simonds tells campaign workers to “communicate in an ‘upbeat,' winning way. Avoid saying ‘kooky' things that may cause a backlash effect.” He tells candidates, “Don't avoid religion, but don't come across ‘all' religious.” Members of conservative Christian organizations—CEE, the Eagle Forum, the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, the American Coalition for Traditional Values, and others—should form coalitions and work together to achieve their mutual goals.
For those Christians who believe politics is a dirty word, Simonds volunteers this advice: “The more Christians stand back and abdicate the commands and responsibilities given us by Christ, the more the current ‘liberals' will succeed politically. The less influence we have, the more our Christian world-view for all mankind will be throttled, the less souls will be saved, and we shall see the beginning of the end of evangelical Christianity, as we now know it. As long as we harbor such thoughts as ‘there are plenty of others to do that political stuff, I want to serve the Lord,' America is doomed.”
CEE's agenda is spelled out in Simonds' monthly newsletter and in the group's other direct-mail publications. For example, in How to Help Your School be a Winner!, a manual for CEE members who want to start a local chapter, Simonds advocates the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in biology classes. He calls for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow prayer in public schools. He characterizes school-based clinics as “unwanted government intrusions” and says they should not endorse the use of contraceptives or make abortion referrals. AIDS education, he says, should take place no earlier than middle school, and it should “emphasize prevention through monogamous, heterosexual sexual activity within marriage. … Homosexuality should not be taught as an acceptable and normal lifestyle.”
In his newsletter, Simonds has proclaimed his support for school choice and, in particular, for the California choice initiative, which is scheduled to be on the ballot there in 1994. The measure would provide vouchers of $2,500 a year to most school-age children. The money could be used at any public or private school, including church-sponsored institutions. Simonds, who calls choice a “biblical principle,” sees the voucher proposal as “a once-in-a-lifetime shot at breaking the iron-clad hold the present bureaucracy now has,” and he has urged CEE members “to do your very best to enable us to bring about the victory for CHOICE.”
A recent CEE publication, Reinventing America's Schools, takes on such educational reforms as year-round schooling, outcome-based learning, site-based management, and multiculturalism. According to Simonds' newsletter, the booklet will “help your school board escape the new restructuring trap and stop the giveaway of our curriculum and entire education system.”
The ‘San Diego Model'
If there's any doubt that CEE and other conservative Christian organizations are making political waves, one needs only to look at what happened two years ago in San Diego County, where 60 candidates backed by the Christian right were elected to school boards, hospital boards, water boards, and other local offices. The candidates, using the strategy outlined in Simonds' booklet and championed by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, distributed campaign fliers in church parking lots and used church telephone directories to contact potential voters.
“We're trying to generate as large a voter turnout as possible among our constituency by communicating with them in a way that does not attract the fire of our opponents,” Ralph Reed Jr., executive director of the Christian Coalition, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “You can have Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson stand in front of a bank of microphones and endorse our candidates, or you can quietly send out a pro-family slate that tells our community who the candidates are on the ballot.”
In 1990, of 46 San Diego County school board candidates whose names appeared on a slate distributed to churches by the California Pro-Life Council, 24 won seats. Conservative Christians now speak glowingly of the “San Diego Model,” and they hope to see it repeated in other parts of the country.
Critics, however, accused the candidates of using stealth tactics—avoiding public forums, carefully targeting get-out-the-vote efforts at evangelical churches, and downplaying conservative Christian agendas before general audiences.
“That's just good strategy,” Reed has said. “It's like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night.”
Simonds, for his part, denies that his members have used stealth campaign tactics. “If there's anything undemocratic about what we're doing,” he says, “I'd like to have someone point it out.”
‘We Take Our Hats Off To Them'
Michael Hudson, vice president of People for the American Way (Simonds likes to call the liberal watchdog group “People for the Un-American Way”), says of CEE, “You've got to give them credit for what they're doing.” Hudson, an affable Texan who looks like a clean-cut Kris Kristofferson, runs PAW's California office out of a low-rise building in Marina del Rey. Behind his desk is a poster that says, “Censorship is Un-American.”
“We take our hats off to them,” Hudson says. “They're out there doing better at democracy than our side is, in many ways. What's wrong and dangerous is that if their agenda were carried out, it would be very damaging to public education, to the First Amendment, to the principle of keeping religious dogma out of governing public-policy decisions.”
He adds: “It's the agenda that we think is completely contrary to the notion of public education. If they get control of the local districts, you're going to see a dramatic transformation of public education that would be, in our view, not in the best interests of the country. That's the issue, as far as we see it.”
But are conservative Christian school board members really transforming public education? There's no doubt that they are trying—even on school boards in which they don't have a clear majority. Some examples:
- Two CEE-affiliated school board members in Xenia, Ohio, persuaded their colleagues to abolish “Kids for Healthy Families,” a self-esteem program for 3rd and 4th graders. One of the conservative Christian board members called the program “very probing of family secrets. It gives children the idea they have power over their parents.” The board also rejected a state-required AIDS curriculum.
- In Spring Valley, Calif., a San Diego suburb, the principal of an elementary school sought school board approval for a free-breakfast program. La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board members Donald Smith and Cheryl Jones, both conservative Christians elected in 1990, objected to the plan. “I think it is the responsibility of the family to take care of the children, not to turn it over to the state,” Jones said. The three other school board members disagreed, however, and the program was implemented. Observers are watching the district closely to see if a conservative Christian majority emerges following this month's school board election.
- Also in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, a mother who is currently running for school board attempted to have The Witches, by Roald Dahl, removed from school libraries. Board members Smith and Jones agreed with the parent, but board president Hawley Ridenour, backed by two other members, voted to retain the book. “Witches was not discovered in La Mesa-Spring Valley,” Ridenour, who is not seeking re-election, said at a board meeting. “The rabid right found it a long time ago, and they put it on their list. ... I think we need to send a message real quick that they should take their pony show on down the road.” (The Witches is a favorite target of conservative Christians, according to PAW.)
- In the Rosemont-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, in suburban Minneapolis, three of the board's seven members have called for courses and teachers that embrace “traditional family values,” and they want schools to remove what they call the “social agenda”—self-esteem and drug-prevention programs and sex-education classes. Sue Duggan, one of the conservative Christian board members, has said that teaching “religious values” may just be the solution to crime, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse.
- A self-described “very opinionated Christian” board member in Hellertown, Pa., objected to “Pumsy: In Pursuit of Excellence,” a self-esteem curriculum used in 1st grade classes. The board member, who was listed in CEE literature as the group's local “contact person,” said the curriculum subjected students to hypnotic suggestions. The member had been the subject of an earlier controversy when he opposed the state's recommendations on the teaching of values, on the grounds that ethics lessons “written by a Jew” might be incompatible with what he wants his children to be taught.
Not all conservative Christians who are running for school boards are actually getting elected, however. Last January, David Strawn, past president of a local CEE chapter, was defeated in a school board race in the Houston area. “It is a constitutional right to teach religion in schools,” Strawn had said at a school board forum. Conservative Christians running for school boards in several northwest Chicago suburbs also lost their bids last year. The candidates' opposition to the Impressions reading series was the major focus of the campaign.
Still, CEE activists have shown that it doesn't take like-minded school board members to have an impact on public education. People for the American Way, in its annual report on school censorship, Attacks on the Freedom to Learn, cited more than 20 incidents in which CEE members, or members of other conservative Christian organizations using CEE's literature, sought the removal of school curricula they found objectionable:
- Parents and CEE members in Tiffin, Ohio, objected to “Quest,” a self-esteem and drug-abuse prevention pilot program used in 5th and 6th grade classes, for allegedly undermining parental authority. The school superintendent eliminated the program.
- In Pennsylvania, CEE activists launched a statewide campaign against newly adopted state education reforms that scrapped traditional graduation requirements in favor of “learning outcomes,” some of which assess nonacademic values and attitudes. Critics charged that one guideline, which calls on schools to expose students to “different cultures and lifestyles in order to foster an appreciation of the dignity, worth, contributions, and equal rights for all people,” promoted homosexuality.
- A school nurse in Meridian, Ohio, in response to questions from students following Magic Johnson's announcement that he has the HIV virus, made a presentation on HIV and AIDS to a 6th grade class. Local CEE members alleged that the nurse demonstrated the use of a condom to the class, which she denied. Simonds wrote a letter to the school board threatening legal action. In response, district officials issued a temporary gag order prohibiting school employees from “discussing with students or teaching students anything relating to sex education, sexually transmitted disease, or HIV/ AIDS.” Three days later, 1,500 high school students held a lunchtime rally to protest the ban. The gag order was subsequently lifted, but teachers are still prohibited from discussing those issues in depth with students unless the students have written parental permission.
- The Galveston, Texas, chapter of CEE, with support from other conservative Christian organizations, requested the removal of “Positive Action,” a self-esteem program used in kindergarten through 6th grade, on the grounds that it is anti-family, promotes “New Age” beliefs, and teaches a “way of life contrary to Judeo-Christian principles.” One CEE member said of the program: “It is beyond secular humanism. It is a religion, a New Age religion.” The local school board declined to act on the request.
The ‘New Age'
Robert Marzano has spent the last three years studying CEE's direct-mail literature. Deputy director of Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally funded education research group in Aurora, Colo., Marzano first heard of CEE when a curriculum program he wrote, “Tactics for Thinking,” came under attack by CEE members, who claimed it contained New Age overtones. “I was shocked,” he says. “I thought it was just a passing thing. Well, it wasn't just a passing thing.” Since then, he has devoted much of his free time to investigating CEE's efforts.
“I can't tell you how many calls I've gotten from teachers and school board members who are concerned about this group,” he says.
According to Marzano, Simonds coined the term “impact evangelism” to describe his mixture of politics and religion. At the heart of the movement is the conviction that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Not only has Christianity been taken out of the public schools, they believe, but it has also been replaced by secular humanism, which in turn has evolved into the explicitly anti-Christian “New Age religion.”
Marzano pointed out six common educational innovations that have been criticized by Simonds and members of CEE: self-esteem programs, cooperative learning, global education, the use of imagery, gifted-education programs, and whole language. Simonds regularly labels such programs as New Age, which he calls “a term used to sell mystical, Eastern religious concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, and others. It got into our schools through merely changing the words to fit our Western terminology. These new school programs are justified as psychology.”
In a speech he gave last April in New Orleans at the annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Marzano urged educators to fight back—before it's too late. “This movement is very powerful and is growing at a geometric rate,” he said, “and I don't think we realize exactly what we have to lose as educators. And I say we've actually lost quite a bit.”
The Case For Moral Education
To dismiss Simonds and CEE's members as religious “kooks,” as some do, is to miss an important point: Conservative Christians aren't the only ones who believe that schools need to do a better job at teaching morals to our children. USA Today columnist Barbara Reynolds, a political liberal on most issues, recently wrote: “The Ten Commandments ought to be posted in public schools, but that was knocked down by the [Supreme Court] in 1980. If there isn't prayer in schools, there will be more prayer at funerals. Youths who can't be taught the Golden Rule will learn their own rules on our mean streets.”
In his new book, Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education, William Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Boston College, writes: “The core problem facing our schools is a moral one. All the other problems derive from it.” Kilpatrick believes that schools have replaced character education with what he calls the “decisionmaking” approach. The shift, he says, was begun with “the best of intentions.”
“The new approach,” he writes, “was meant to help students to think more independently and critically about values. Proponents claimed that a young person would be more committed to self-discovered values than to ones that were simply handed down by adults. That was the hope. But the actual consequences of the shift have been quite different. For students, it has meant wholesale confusion about moral values: learning to question values they have scarcely acquired, unlearning values taught at home, and concluding that questions of right and wrong are always merely subjective.”
Kilpatrick sounds a lot like Simonds when he blames much of society's problems on the public schools: “The United States has an AIDS problem and a drug problem and a violence problem. None of this will go away until schools once again make it their job to teach character both directly, through the curriculum, and indirectly, by creating a moral environment in the school.”
But what values should schools teach? For Simonds, the answer is obvious: Christian values. “We are against the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools,” he asserts in How to Help Your School Be a Winner! “However, Christianity and the Bible as a major social and moral force in our nation should be taught ‘about.' Christianity has a rich heritage and has had a tremendous basic influence on the development of America. … Our American history is just crammed full of examples of important religious movements and Christian ideas that have made America great. Early public school curricula was based on the Bible. These major contributions of Christianity should be taught ‘about' and emphasized in our classrooms.”
Elsewhere, he has written: “We have meticulously followed God's plan and His biblical principles in CEE's plan to redeem America's children from the clutches of atheism, immorality, and psychological brainwashing. Godless socialism and the plethora of left-wing agenda items must be stopped.”
Critics of CEE, however, many of whom consider themselves to be Christians, object to Simonds' “us vs. them” rhetoric. “The impact evangelists,” says Colorado researcher Marzano, “although they assert they speak for the majority of Americans in the country, [and] they assert they speak for Christians, in fact really don't because Christianity is so broad that no one person can really speak for it.” He adds: “It's hard to fight them because the moment you do, you're labeled as being anti-Christian and antifamily values. It's a no-win situation.”
But some parents, teachers, and religious leaders are fighting back. One such group is the Community Coalition Network, the political action committee formed in San Diego County last January. The group, led by UCSD history professor Parrish and La Mesa-Spring Valley schoolteacher Poppy Dennis, vows to “defend the public schools from the now well-documented attack by the religious far right.”
“We have no objection to people with strong religious beliefs running for or holding public office,” Parrish said at a press conference last spring. “What we oppose is the use of public office to impose sectarian beliefs and values and the unwillingness of candidates to openly declare their support for separation of church and state.”
The coalition has compiled a list of more than a dozen San Diego County school boards that are in “imminent danger” of being taken over by conservative Christians in this month's elections. “This is bad enough news for those of us with a particular interest in education,” says the group's newsletter. “There is worse news. The fundamentalist right clearly sees local school boards as ‘training ground.' The intention is not only to take over our schools, but also to develop a cadre of experienced candidates ready to move on to higher office. They must be stopped now!”
To that end, the coalition has tried to get school board candidates to sign its 10-point “Declaration of Principles,” which includes such statements as “We believe in separation of church and state, and in its obvious corollary, separation of church and public school,” and “We believe candidates for public office who are sponsored by or affiliated with organizations that have a specific political agenda should disclose any and all of those organizational connections.”
Steve Baldwin, a former political consultant who organized training sessions for Christian candidates in 1990 and who himself won the Republican primary in June for a San Diego state Assembly seat, reacted with anger when the coalition was formed. “In my view they're a bunch of bigots,” he told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “This is the third or fourth group established in this county with the express purpose of harassing Christians who are politically organized.”
Some teachers have taken a stand against conservative Christian activists by seeking the inclusion of “academic freedom” clauses in their contracts. When a group of parents in Vista, Calif., objected to the use of Candide by Voltaire, a drug- and alcohol-prevention program called “Here's Looking at You 2000,” and a spelling program called “Wizards,” teachers there lobbied for—and won—just such a clause. It allows teachers to “introduce lawful political, religious, or otherwise controversial material” that is relevant to a course.
There are critics who believe that Simonds' true agenda is to undermine—not change—the public schools, a charge he disputes. “If we wanted to destroy public education, believe me, we have the tools to do it,” he says, “and we have the numbers to do it. We believe in public education; that's why we're trying to work within the system. But we're getting pretty tired of getting racked all the time. And frankly, the more unfair treatment we get, the more riled up we'll get.
“There are 15,700 school districts in America. There are 155,000 evangelical churches alone, and if you take all the churches in, there are 265,000 of them. Well, think of that, when you only have 15,700 school districts! There's a minimum of 10 evangelical churches for every school district! And so, politically, they don't even have a prayer. We can vote who we want in and out.”
So Simonds and his army march on, steadfast in their convictions. And make no mistake: Simonds believes God is on their side. “We are God's ‘light' in this world,” he has written. “We must believe that! For it is true.”
Vol. 04, Issue 03, Pages 18-21