Conservatives see liberal bias in class - and mobilize

Complaints that teachers push liberal ideology are trickling down from college campuses to the K-12 level

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Concerned that public schools are becoming sites of liberal indoctrination, activists have generated a wave of efforts to limit what teachers may discuss and to bring more conservative views into the classroom.

After all, they say, if related campaigns can help rein in doctrinaire faculty on college campuses, why not in K-12 education as well?

So far this year, at least 14 state legislatures have considered bills aimed at colleges that would restrict professors and establish grievance procedures for students who perceive political bias in teaching. None have become law, but the movement has momentum: Four state universities in Colorado, for instance, adopted the principles under legislative pressure in 2004.

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"The last six months [have] been kind of a watershed for the academic-freedom movement," says Bradley Shipp, national field director for Students for Academic Freedom, a group founded by conservative activist David Horowitz in 2003. "It is going to filter itself down to the K-12 level."

It's an important battle front, proponents say, because younger students are more impressionable. They are concerned about multicultural lesson plans that go into detail about the Muslim faith, and cite incidents such as a young child being reprimanded by a teacher for writing about wanting to become a soldier.

An aggrieved faction of conservative high school students and parents appears eager to take up the cause:

• ProtestWarrior.com has equipped 160 high school chapters and about 100 individual students with materials to publicize, for instance, whenever a teacher "tries to shove his ideology down someone's throat."

• A group known as Christian Copts of California has distributed 5,000 booklets in Florida and California this year denouncing a seventh-grade world history section as an "attempt to engrave Islam in the minds of ... children."

• Parents and Students for Academic Freedom formed in August 2004 to give parents a forum to address "the one-sided teaching and partisan indoctrination in our nation's secondary schools." The group urges school boards and legislatures to adopt the same speech-restricting principles that its parent organization (Students for Academic Freedom) urges at the college level.

• A cybercommunity, Republicanvoices.org, based in Massachusetts, is soliciting testimony from K-12 students about political bias in the classroom. Led by a 12-year-old editor (with guidance from adults), it aims to leverage support for reform of what it calls "the liberal, bureaucratic, public school indoctrination machine."

These proposed remedies will spawn their own set of problems, some observers say. Teachers who are "ideologically coloring a subject" in any direction are troublingly out of line, but "the risk is that teachers will feel even further restrained than they already do," says Patricia Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that advocates for public schools.

Current events discussions, for instance, would become next to impossible in such an environment, Ms. Sullivan says. "[It would be] very difficult to not cross the line.... A teacher could very easily in a course of normal conversation express views, and I just don't know how you regulate that."

American Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Leslie Getzinger would not comment specifically on the trend, saying the group is for the moment focused on priorities such as meeting the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law. But the AFT does oppose on principle efforts to curtail a perceived liberal bias at colleges, stating in a 2004 resolution that "political control and/or interference in scholarship and teaching are totally incompatible with the maintenance and development of a free, democratic and progressive society."

Some self-described conservative students, however, are not content with the status quo.

Tyler Whitney, a junior at East Lansing High School in Michigan, says teachers and administrators let him circulate his newspaper, The Right Way, only after a public protest this spring and coverage of the standoff in the local news.

Principal Paula Steele says the school permitted distribution of The Right Way as soon as editors deleted submissions by college students, because "we do not want to be a forum for outside speakers." Ideology, she says, was never a factor.

In class, Tyler says, he still keeps his views to himself. When a world history teacher last year characterized the Iraq war as an empire-building bid for oil, he says, "I just shook my head and went along with it because I didn't want to get a bad grade."

Students in primary and secondary schools tend to feel "intimidated," due to the "imbalance of power" in the classroom, says Gerard Balan, managing editor of Republicanvoices.org. "[Students] are not really going to want to rock the boat even if they disagree with what the teacher is saying."

And when most of those teachers belong to unions that support Democrats, he and other activists say, the political compass tends to tilt left.

For some, the new assertiveness among parents and students is a response to restrictions at security- conscious schools. One example from the libertarian Rutherford Institute: the use of dogs in drug searches.

The institute, based in Charlottesville, Va., also objects to the "uniformity and conformity" required by some schools, says president John Whitehead. It filed suit May 17 against Hudson (Mass.) High School for allegedly tearing down posters for the High School Conservative Clubs of America.

The posters, hung by senior Chris Bowler, were provocative. They touted the clubs' website, which links to footage of beheadings at the hands of Islamic extremists. The site says the images show "the true doctrines of Islam put into action."

"Unfortunately, students are treated as semi-inmates in lots of schools," Mr. Whitehead says. "The problem is there aren't many people like Chris Bowler who will stand up and fight back." Hudson High School did not respond to requests for comment.

Some observers envision liberal and conservative families lining up in pursuit of separate educations. Because ideological policing of the classroom may prove impossible, support could grow for vouchers for values-driven education, says Michelle Easton, president of the conservative Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute in Herndon, Va.

"Our primary approach is to promote school choice, because then parents can pick little right-wing schools, little left-wing schools, little traditional schools - whatever they want for their children," Mrs. Easton says. "Then you get the government out the business of, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' "

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