Wildfire: The Tense Climate in Public Education

By Wayne Jacobsen

If you've never seen it, it is impossible to describe how quickly a wildfire can spread especially this time of year in the tinder-dry foothills of California. It just takes a spark, and even the first attempts to stomp it out often backfire, causing more sparks to scatter in the wind. Suddenly a raging inferno tears across the hills until thousands of acres are blackened in its wake.

If you've never seen it, it is impossible to describe how quickly a community can be devastated by religious controversy. Six weeks ago at a chance meeting on vacation I spoke with a health educator in a distant district. As I explained BridgeBuilders as a peace-making tool for religious controversies in public education she responded confidently, "We're not having any problems with that in our district."

I was hopeful she was right, but I was afraid that just because she didn't see any flames, she thought she was fine. Regretfully, within a month a concern over aids education blew up. The board president in her district, unaware of our previous contact, called a few days ago soliciting my involvement in helping to limit and heal the crisis.

Public educators need to understand the high fire danger in which the current public school district operates. In the last 30 years the common ground has shifted and some people feel betrayed by that process and are ready to take action. It's a prime environment for fear to be cultivated. Just consider some of what has been written about public education by well-respected members of the religious community:

From a Focus on the Family Newsletter: "Journalist Cal Thomas referred to Goals 2,000 as the 'dumbing down of a generation.' 'How should parents respond to this latest government power grab? Just as they would if they knew their children's school was on fire they should get them out, fast.'

From a fundraising letter for the ACLJ by Pat Robertson: "Today we see a deliberate, all-out effort to eradicate religious belief from every vestige of public life."

From the Christian Research Journal in an article entitled "Public Education or Pagan Indoctrination?": "The New Age movement has made significant inroads into the educational establishment and has infused many curricula and programs with its practices and ideology."

Letters from organizations on the left also help foster a fearful climate as they suggest that religious parents are out to take over their school districts and make it an extension of their own theology. These misperceptions explain why the smallest concern can become an inferno almost overnight, and should encourage districts to take seriously the importance of communicating about religious concerns in public education and building bridges to the religious community.

All it takes is for the district to refuse a mother who asks for an alternative reading for her child; ignore the fear that a student's portfolio will be used to limit their employment or education options; or fail to communicate that their curriculum is not abandoning academic basics for 'feel-good' psychology. It doesn't matter whether the school is doing it or not, the perception will more than suffice to touch off a crisis.

Fearful parents organize quickly. School administrators, often surprised at the accusations leveled against them ignore them or worse yet, stonewall, hoping the parents will tire and go away. There is, however a lot of help out there to feed their fears. The media will love the controversy and help fan the flames. Parents will feel lied to and betrayed and school personnel will feel they are being maliciously misrepresented and the community will be divided. Controversies that could have easily been solved in an atmosphere of mutual concern degenerates into shouting matches at board meetings, lawsuits, single-issue board elections and recall votes.

What's so tragic is that this doesn't have to happen. There is a wealth of literature and tools to help communities build a consensus regarding the proper place of religion in the educational environment, and to help parents and administrators alike see how unfounded some of their fears might be of the other. As scary as it may be to open up dialogue regarding the religious complexity of our culture, it ought to scare you more not to.

Today school districts need to be pro-active in re-defining the common ground on which schools can function for the good of the community in an environment of religious neutrality and mutual trust. They also need to understand the fears driving some of the parent concerns in their district so they can address them with compassion and help resolve them before they devastate the entire community.

If I lived up in the foothills of California, I would have already invested my time clearing the dry brush from around my house and encouraged my neighbors to do the same. How can we do anything less for our kids?

© Copyright 1996 by BridgeBuilders


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