What’s proper role for board of education?

May 28, 2013

An educated person is familiar with the Bible,” said Jennifer Burton at the May 9 meeting of the Cape Henlopen School District Board of Education.

Not many people would argue seriously with that statement. The stories and language of the Bible have had an enormous impact on our culture.

Burton and fellow board member Sandi Minard were speaking in favor of offering a course developed by the Bible Literacy Project, which has produced a book, “The Bible and Its Influence,” to be used in public schools. They attended a seminar about the textbook at an educational convention in San Diego.

“In a nutshell,” said Burton, “it’s the first student textbook for public high school academic study of the Bible.”

Burton and other speakers stressed repeatedly that the class would not be “devotional.” It would not be a religious or “Bible study” class, as such. It would be purely an academic approach to the Bible and how it has affected the modern world.

Oddly enough, for some people, that’s part of the problem. It’s hardly surprising that a class about religion might generate controversy. That was reflected at the May 9 board meeting, where the issue appeared to pit religious conservatives against progressive liberals, with the former supporting the class.

But what surprised me later was how much debate the textbook has spawned just within conservative religious circles. Check for yourself on the internet. Some religious conservatives have come right out and said the textbook is part of a plot by secular humanists to undermine religion.

Here’s an excerpt from the Church of the Great God Weekly website, which objected to how the Bible Literacy Project used the Bible as a “textbook and a document.”

“And there is the rub,” said C.G.G. Weekly. “The Bible is not being taught as true, but as a ‘document’ that has influenced politics, art, music and literature. It is not the Word of God, studied for instruction about how to live and come to know the Creator, but an ‘influential book’ to be dissected and deconstructed to further the aims of secular humanists everywhere.”

It goes on to say, “The textbook is filled with statements and exercises that encourage the student to become a judge of the Bible, and thus undermine its authority.”

Other items I found condemned the Bible Literacy Project for its association with Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar who has been attacked by religious conservatives for writing articles such as “When the Government Prays, No One Wins.” Another article expressed concern that Haynes had served on something called the Board of the Pluralism Project with a Wiccan high priestess.

A Word Watch Daily website, which also criticized the Bible Literacy Project’s academic approach, had this headline: “Bible Curriculum Demonstrates Public Schools are End Time Battleground.”

Let’s hope Cape Henlopen can avoid becoming a religious and educational battleground.

Judging from the articles I found, the Cape Henlopen School District, if it were to offer this course, could find itself under attack from both the right and the left. Does the district really want to step into a religious crossfire?

Controversy becomes even more likely when even board members appear to differ on the purpose of the class. Burton and Minard described the class as academic only, but board member Spencer Brittingham seemed to go off message, suggesting that teaching the Bible would help the school with issues such as discipline and bullying.

“Teaching a course like this can do nothing but positive things in our building,” he said.

That’s starting to sound more like religious instruction.

Which highlights another facet of this issue: What is the role of the school board? Does it include deciding on particular classes?

I don’t question Minard’s good intentions, but that’s no way to run a district. Yes, Minard and her supporters might be happy to see “The Bible and Its Influence” added to Cape’s course offerings in the fall.

But next year, there will be new school board elections. The makeup of the board could change.

The new board could decide to drop “The Bible and Its Influence” class and introduce another course, perhaps one not liked by conservatives.

The school district, instead of moving forward in its difficult task of educating students, could find itself constantly shifting with the changing political winds.

Far better to do what Superintendent Robert Fulton counseled that evening: Let the school’s administrators, curriculum advisors and teachers make their evaluation and decide on particular course offerings.

“I don’t think we hurry something like this,” Fulton said. “I think we take our time.”

The board would be wise to heed that advice.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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