How Hidden Agendas Erode Public Education
by Mary Ellen Sikes
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 18, Number 2.
Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition
will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer
be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much
improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that
the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which
it is to be effected.
—Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours,
Jefferson's belief in the power of education to improve the human condition and
to nurture democracy is legendary. He wrote extensively on the proper role of
government in educating its citizenry, venturing his opinions about curricular
content for students of all ages. The University of Virginia, founded by
Jefferson in 1819 and still locally referred to as "Mr. Jefferson's
Academical Village," was the nation's first public institution of higher
Virginia graduates many excellent students from its public schools, most of
which appear safe, clean, and inviting to the casual onlooker. But behind the
historic brick and Corinthian columns there is a subtle dark side to education
in the Old Dominion. A "back to basics" movement combined with stingy
fiscal policies launched by social and religious conservatives who gained power
during the George Allen gubernatorial years of the mid-90s continues to narrow
the focus of our children's education, increase class sizes, lower teacher
morale, and force local administrators to make impossible financial choices for
the schools they serve.
A small sampling of the kinds of policies that come out of a back to basics
approach to public education:
Increased or altered academic requirements for
students across the board, without funding to support the changes. It's hard
to argue against higher standards for public school students. The problem here
is that most of these requirements are inflexible, focused on quantity rather
than quality, poorly assessed, and unfunded. High school counselors are advising
their students to forego electives unless they attend summer school because
there are so many units now required for graduation. At lower levels, an
emphasis on testing for content acquisition (memory of facts taught, sometimes
more than a year earlier) over critical thinking and development of literacy and
numeracy skills has required a complete overhaul of academic curricula and cost
districts a bundle in new materials, teacher training, test administration, and
Removal or weakening of the mandate and funding
for nonacademic curricula such as physical education, vocational training, and
the arts. The school district that provided my own children such a broad
foundation in music, art, and diverse electives like foreign languages and
computer programming is now so feverishly focused on academic accreditation by
the state that funding and resources for other programs has gone into freefall.
Award-winning band programs are now offered as twice-weekly electives and many
nonacademic support staff have been terminated.
General weakening of staffing ratios and funding.
The librarian position at the 350-student elementary school where I worked for
seven years is no longer funded as a full-time slot. In order to keep her full
salary, the employee in this precarious position now must also perform all the
technology education and computer troubleshooting for staff and students,
administer the school network of more than fifty computers, and maintain the
school Web site. And last fall, every single classroom assistant in the school
was terminated in order to maintain class sizes below the district maximum.
Removal of the mandate and funding for guidance
counselors in elementary schools, and/or attempts to limit counselors' job
descriptions to strictly academic concerns. Guidance counselors are seen by
the Religious Right as the enemy of the conservative Christian family because
they encourage children to discuss ethical behavior as a duty to one another
rather than as strict adherence to the absolute commandments of a deity.
Counselors are feared as well: they are the school employees most likely to
learn of, and report, child abuse and neglect.
Removal of the mandate and funding for family
life education. In Virginia, school districts have the option of completely
eliminating all discussion of human sexuality at every grade level. Those
districts who continue the previously required units do so at their own expense
for staffing and materials. This means that a Virginia student can earn an
advanced (college preparatory) high school diploma with absolutely no knowledge
of how her species reproduces. It also means that children in the least affluent
school districts are the least likely to receive sexuality education.
As humanists we are quick to react when our First Amendment freedoms are
jeopardized. In recent months we have found ourselves increasingly marginalized
by the encroachment of civic religion disguised as patriotism. Like most of my
friends in the movement, I am outraged that my governor will soon be asked to
sign a bill requiring Virginia public schools and courtrooms to display signs
announcing, "In God We Trust." These are my buildings, too: I've paid
for them, worked in them, sent my children to them to receive an education, and
spent more hours in them than I want to know-photocopying newsletters for the
parent-teacher organization, conferencing with teachers, shelving library books,
planting marigold seeds, and videotaping singing kids. I don't trust in God, and
damn it, you can't convince me I'm not part of the "We."
But as worked up as I get about public displays of religion, I view these
open battles as the less insidious ones. Those that really eat away at my sense
of public concern are the lingering, veiled, orchestrated attacks waged against
our public education system in the name of "higher standards."
These are not higher standards at all. These are shameful, politically
motivated standards: the standards of religious conservatives who want to
discredit, weaken, and divide our public schools so that they'll be vulnerable
to the next onslaught of private school voucher proposals. These are the
standards of people who fabricated a problem so that they could offer a no-win
solution. These are the people who want to threaten the very image of public
education so that their religious schools can cash in on the state budget. These
are the standards of people who don't care about kids in any real sense at all
except as political toys. Don't be fooled.
Mary Ellen Sikes is president of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.
She has a background in public school technology education and now works as a