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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, 1816.

Thomas 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 learning. 

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 parent communications. 

     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 Web analyst.


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