Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who Shares Responsibility for Educating Children Attending Public Schools?

My children are in sixth grade at Clay Middle School (part of Carmel Clay Schools). Prior to last week, I’d never had any real cause to examine the student handbook provided to Clay students. But then my daughter came home upset about the school’s intent to adopt a more rigorous enforcement regime for its dress code. I looked at the dress code to see what upset her and, while much of the dress code seems appropriate and reasonable, a few elements seem to go a bit too far. But that is a discussion for another day.

Instead, I want to focus on something else that I discovered in the student handbook. I decided, after the discussion over the dress code, to see what else the handbook might say. I didn’t get very far before my blood began to boil (or at least simmer slightly):


In stating our philosophy for Clay Middle we would like to quote from the Carmel-Clay Policies Book:

Recognizing that the purpose of education is to help the individual to develop his potential in order that he might achieve and maintain a positive status in a rapidly changing democratic society, we believe Carmel Clay Schools must provide a program of activities covering all phases of growth.

We are concerned with helping every individual develop to the highest degree his intellectual capacities, with due regard for physical, moral, and social aspects of individual development, in an atmosphere of self-disciplined behavior.

We believe it is the responsibility of the school to maintain the fundamental concepts of American democracy by instruction, example, and practice. We further believe that education is a continuing process, and that the responsibility of educating must be the combined effort of the school, the church, and the home.

All activities, curricular and co-curricular, should be educational experiences designed to promote constructive growth of the individual.

Finally, we believe administrators, teachers, and parents must motivate and guide each student to think logically, positively, and actively for the enrichment of himself and of the society in which he lives.

By and large, that Philosophy is commendable. But did you pick upon the part that prompted this post? Here it is again (emphasis added):

We further believe that education is a continuing process, and that the responsibility of educating must be the combined effort of the school, the church, and the home.

Oh, really? The responsibility for educating our children must include the efforts of the church?

So I decided to do a bit of research and see what the Carmel Clay Policies Book has to say given that it is being quoted for Clay Middle School’s philosophy. Sure enough, the exact same sentence is found in the Policies Book. Well, now. To quote a certain church lady, isn’t that special?

OK. So I can already hear some of you saying, “Gee, what’s the big deal?” Simple. The school (or the school system) has no business pushing off any responsibility onto “the church”. Certainly a parent can choose to place responsibility for some portion of the child’s education on to a church. And I suppose a student can make that determination, too. But the school should not be devolving responsibility to or sharing responsibility with a church.

Why not? Several reasons.

First, let’s recall the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. The school is an arm of the state. It is the job of the school to educate children. At least as far as the structure of our political system is designed, it is not the job of the church to educate children; children are obligated to attend school but they are not obligated to attend a house of worship (or even to believe in a deity). Furthermore, by suggesting that the church plays a role in the combined effort of educating children, aren’t the school and school system essentially endorsing the participation by students in religious affiliation, if not observance? Is that the role of the school and school board?

And how does this belief in the responsibility of the church impact students who are not affiliated with a church or who are … gasp … atheists? Are those students only receiving two-thirds of the education that the school and school system believe are necessary? Remember, the Philosophy uses the commandment “must” not just a simple suggestion like “should”.

It’s probably worth recalling what Article 1 of Indiana’s Constitution has to say:

Section 3. No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.

Section 4. No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.

Perhaps even more important is Article 8 of Indiana’s Constitution (you did know that Indiana’s Constitution has an entire article dealing with public education, right?):

Section 1. Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.

Hmm. You know what I don’t see in Article 8 Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution? I don’t see a reliance upon or belief that the church is a necessary component to the education of Hoosier children or that the responsibility for teaching students must include the church. (Of course, I’m not sure that my kids are getting much of an “agricultural improvement” either, though that omission is just fine by me…)

And why do the school and school system believe that the church has responsibility for educating children? What is the church teaching that the school is not? What is the church teaching that parents are not? If your answer is that the church is “teaching morals” or some such, then I would ask you the following questions: First, why isn’t the school and why aren’t parents teaching those morals? Sorry, but I have a hard time believing that children are going to learn sound morals from a stranger at church if those morals are not also taught and reinforced in the home … and school. Second, does that mean that someone who is either not affiliated with a church or who does not believe in a deity cannot learn morals due to the absence of a church? Or is there something that the school and school system think that churches are teaching that is valuable to children but which the schools can’t teach? Hmm.

Let’s see. Schools teach math, science, history, languages, writing, reading, art, athletics, music, and so on and so forth. So what is that schools aren’t or can’t teach that the church can? Hmm. Let’s think. What could it be? Might it be, you know, just perhaps, religion? Which brings me back to the original point. Is it appropriate for the government, in the form of a school or school board, to be advocating religious belief, affiliation, or education? I don’t think so. If parents want their children to receive a religious education to supplement (or in place of) the education offered by the public schools they are free to do so. But, by the same token, if parents don’t choose to inculcate their children with religious belief or to provide supplementary religious education, then isn’t that fine, too? Why must (in the word of the school system and school) a student’s education include a religious education?

Moreover, ask yourself this: Why is it just the church that bears a share of the responsibility for educating a child? Why not the Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts (well, other than that whole notion that the Girl Scouts are a communist front for Planned Parenthood…)? Schools aren’t teaching kids how to tie knots, row a canoe, or build a fire. So shouldn’t the involvement of scouts to help children learn those sorts of skills be added to the educational responsibility roll? What about cotillion or dance schools? I’m pretty sure that public schools aren’t teaching children how to waltz (square dance, maybe), but that seems like an important skill that children ought not miss. Should it be reflected in the school’s philosophy, too? What about skills like self-defense or even marksmanship? Should those be part of the educational philosophy? And, perhaps most importantly, what about the logical skills involved in debunking someone else’s religious beliefs? Are those skills being taught in school? Hmm. I know that a lot of parents want us to “teach” controversies like intelligent design or avoid things like global warming. Should we be “teaching the controversy” that argues for or against the existence of a deity? Should the school be teaching which religions are “real” or even “right”? If the school thinks the church is an important component of the educational process, the it seems that the inverse of that is also important.

And it’s worth noting the sentence that immediately precedes the one with which I’ve taken issue:

We believe it is the responsibility of the school to maintain the fundamental concepts of American democracy by instruction, example, and practice.

It would seem that by advocating for the involvement of the church in the educational process, the school and school system are violating “the fundamental concept[] of American democracy” by ignoring the constitutional separation of church and state.

As I was finishing this post, I decided to take a few more minutes and peruse the handbooks for some of the other Carmel Clay schools. Creekside Middle School has the same sentence in its handbook but neither Carmel Middle School nor Carmel High School do (I searched for the word “church”; I didn’t read the entire handbook). But each of those latter two schools have something in their handbooks missing from both the Clay Middle School and Creekside Middle School handbooks:

Diversity Statement

As a member of the Carmel Clay school community, Carmel High School is dedicated to fostering an environment which promotes education and well being regardless of ability, age, appearance, gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. All educational programs, activities, and interactions are enriched by celebrating uniqueness as well as commonalities. Respect for human diversity will be encouraged, followed, and enforced by the Carmel Clay schools.

Carmel Clay Schools is committed to equal opportunity and does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, disabling conditions, or national origin including limited English proficiency.

(From the Carmel High School Student Handbook.) I didn’t take the time to look at the handbooks of the elementary schools. In case you’re wondering, the Carmel Clay Policies Book does include a section on nondiscrimination and equal access.

I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of the fact that the two schools that do have a diversity statement do not have the sentence denoting the responsibility of the church in a student’s education while the two schools that do include responsibility of the church do not have a diversity statement. To quote Arsenio Hall: “Things that make you go, hmmm.”

Updated April 27, 2012 to correct an ugly typo.

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At Wednesday, April 25, 2012 8:42:00 PM , Anonymous Karin said...

Great catch. I'm glad I don't have to worry about school and child issues...SINK :)

Don't know if you are a Colbert Report watcher, but I have added a link to a segment from Monday nights show. A former representative of the State of Texas Board of Education is the guest and his answers about choosing material for text books will scare the shit out of you. Enjoy!?!?

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