Evangelizing the public schools. Christian educators discuss ways to boost eroding values

Several hundred evangelical Christians from across the country gathered in Kansas City last week for the ``Christian Congress for Excellence in Public Education.'' It was the first time these Christians -- who identify themselves as ``more low key'' than the Moral Majority -- have come together in behalf of the nation's public schools. Key speakers included Gary Bauer, US undersecretary of education, and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Mr. Shanker's presence marks the first time a major union leader has established relations with educators from the religious right. Shanker told the Monitor he was ``sharing points of agreement'' with the evangelicals. ``They want good schools; so do we.''

About 90 percent of the attendees were teachers, although parents and school administrators were there as well. They spent three days discussing textbook evaluation, parents' legal rights, creationism, and other subjects. Experts say it is still too early to tell how much influence the evangelicals will have on public schooling.

The congress's central purpose was to explore ways to bring into the public schools the basic Christian assumptions evangelicals say the country was founded upon -- the supremacy of God and the devotion of His children, according to Sam Ericcson, an evangelical leader. These beliefs, evangelicals say, have eroded because of liberal life styles; lack of values; drugs; sex -- the moral and cultural relativity of the past 20 years.

Both Mr. Bauer and Mr. Shanker spoke directly to this issue.

Teaching the values of self-discipline, kindness, fidelity, and diligence, Bauer says, is incompatible with teaching all ideas and standards as equally deserving. His was an argument against ``moral equivalency.''

New textbooks should be written with this in mind, Bauer said, to clarify the moral history of America and to bring moral attention to bear on other cultures and political systems. In other words, to ``tell the truth about the world -- a world in which half of mankind is still in chains.''

The AFT's Shanker, who has been less outspoken in recent years (and, arguably, more influential), was also well received by the evangelicals. Shanker's search for an ``excellence agenda'' in school reform has brought him closer to some of the evangelicals' traditional, conservative values. Public education should ``repent,'' he said, of many of its present conditions: the belief that a student always knows his or her needs better than the teacher; the lack of traditional values; lack of homework; low ov erall standards.

``When children have to work hard to achieve something, that carries meaning,'' Shanker said. He added that ``when children are taught they can get something [grades] for nothing, they are introduced to bad morals -- it's corruptive, corrosive.''

Shanker's speech, however, ended on a more controversial note. He opposed voucher plans and tuition tax credits, saying they would denigrate the important ``Americanization'' process that public schools have historically provided. Children attending a hodgepodge of private and special-interest schools, he says, pose ``a real threat'' to the cultural continuity of the United States.

In Kansas City, Bauer told the Monitor of a Department of Education proposal to set up a voucher system designed to ``break the cycle'' of the low-quality education many poor families are ``locked into.'' The proposal -- to divert federal funds from public schools directly to low-income parents -- faces stiff opposition in Congress.

The evangelicals in Kansas City represented a wide variety of faiths -- both mainstream and independant.

Religiously, most adhere to a ``literal'' interpretation of the Bible. They distinguish themselves from fundamentalists because of their belief in the ``gifts of the Holy Spirit,'' which include ecstatic speech, ``miracles,'' and healing -- heresy to the strict fundamentalist, according to Gary Selig, an evangelical spokesman.

Indeed, for the most part, it was their religious outlook that brought the older, upper-middle-class gathering to Kansas City. The subject of academic or intellectual ``excellence'' at the congress was treated peripherally. The evangelicals said that only as the subject of religion, and the development of character, become more central to education will true excellence be realized.

Other voices -- Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation, for example -- have called for more discussion in the public schools of various religious contributions to music, art, literature, and cultural and historical trends. The evangelicals in Kansas City, however, specifically wanted a return to a study of the Gospels in public schools, as was the case up until the turn of the century.

Their ideas on character are equally specific. Education Secretary William Bennett has talked much of a need to teach honesty, integrity, and loyalty in schools. Evangelicals also desire this but say such virtues must come through a more radical, life-changing character regeneration found in the New Testament alone.

Just how to bring religion and character development to the public schools caused some tensions within the congress. How far can one go in communicating Christian perspectives in a public-school setting? There was no comprehensive answer to this, no ``clear call by Christian leaders,'' as one participant put it.

The spectrum of answers to this central question ranged from a highly collective to a highly individual approach. Sally Reed, president of the National Council on Better Education, a Washington lobbying group, spoke out for political activism, underground parent networks, and concentrated voting for school board members, which, she said, would result in ``educational enterprise zones'' where Christian parents systematically ``take control'' of their local school districts, forcing out liberal teachers, curricula, and teacher unions in particular.

Such an approach is ``totally opposite'' to Marty Garlett's point of view. Ms. Garlett, an evangelical plenary speaker from Friends University in Wichita, Kan., said the religious right ignorantly contributes to the bad name given public education. Reforms are needed, she says, but should take place within the existing structure through teachers who know how to ``live the qualities of Christ individually.'' These qualities should ``come out of your life, not your mouth -- you should teach, not preach,''

she says.

Most of the teachers interviewed sympathized more with Garlett's point of view. As Sharon Foster, a Kansas schoolteacher, said, the only effective approach in the classroom or in the larger community ``is through the quality of love you bring to your own work.'' 30{et

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