A Charter for Controversy? Public school “alternatives” still must abide by the separation of church and state

Starting in the late 1980s charter schools were pitched to Americans as a harmless and non-threatening alternative to traditional public schools. That’s come to pass in some states. But in others, we’re beginning to see church-state problems.

Remember, charter schools are not private institutions. They’re part of the public school system. The idea behind charter schools was to spur innovation by freeing the schools from some of the regulations and requirements imposed on public schools. Outside groups were encouraged to offer input and even create new schools.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools may not promote religion, sponsor prayer and Bible reading, or encourage students to take part in “faith-based” activities. They may teach about religion as an academic subject but are not allowed to engage in theological instruction.

Some charter schools are clearly stepping over these lines. In 2012, Americans United for Separation of Church and State conducted a lengthy investigation of Shekinah Learning Institute, which ran several charter schools in Texas.

Americans United was suspicious from the beginning. The word “shekinah” has religious meaning and is sometimes interpreted as a manifestation of God or a dwelling near the deity. The school’s superintendent is also pastor of a church, which rents space to the school.

AU’s investigation found that the school promoted attendance at chapel services and offered weekly Bible study classes. School materials contained religious phrases and iconography. An auditor for the Texas Education Agency reported that “many of the parents thought they were actually at a private Christian school.”

Texas officials vowed to fix that mess. Now they have another one on their hands: Late last year, reports surfaced that creationism was being taught by a charter school chain with branches in Texas and Arkansas.

The abuses at schools run by Responsive Education Solutions (RES) were first brought to light by Zack Kopplin, an activist who promotes sound science education in public schools. Kopplin found that RES schools were teaching students that the fossil record is “sketchy,” that the theory of evolution is “dogma” and “unproven” and that leading scientists disagree about the age of the Earth—in short, standard creationist nonsense. Lessons also attempted to link Darwinian evolution to the racist “social Darwinism” of the late nineteenth century.

Texas officials promised to make changes after attorneys with Americans United wrote to them about the matter. But the situation in Arkansas, where RES also runs charter schools, was not so easily resolved. Education officials there told Americans United to take their complaint directly to RES—implying that state officials had no say in the matter. In fact, they have the final say since these are public schools.

Charter school problems aren’t limited to Texas and Arkansas. A California charter school recently hosted a prayer service for a student who was declared brain dead after undergoing what should have been a routine operation. Sponsoring a religious service was bad enough, but officials at the school compounded the problem by strongly implying to young children that their classmate, who medical officials agreed was clinically dead, would somehow come back to life if they just prayed hard enough.

The list goes on. A parent in Tampa, Florida, checked out what looked like an innovative charter school but turned out to be a front for Scientology. A Minnesota charter school ended up embroiled in a lawsuit over allegations that it was teaching Islam. In Pennsylvania, a pastor who ran a charter school was accused of funneling taxpayer money to his church. A chain of charters in New York that offered a Hebrew-language curriculum were said to be promoting Judaism.

And in some states, financially strapped Roman Catholic schools have pulled down crucifixes, promised to stop teaching religion, and converted to publicly funded charters, retaining the same student body and staff.

The charter concept has always had its critics. Little evidence exists that charters out-perform traditional public schools, and in fact some may do worse. Many opponents fear that charters are designed to get Americans comfortable with the idea of privatizing secondary education or grease the skids for vouchers. Others say charter schools dilute the influence of teachers’ unions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Charters could be what they were intended to be—a supplement to traditional public schools—but only if they are subjected to proper forms of oversight and regulation.

Regulation seems to be a dirty word in much of the United States these days. That’s unfortunate, because all of the problems I’ve discussed here could have been avoided if state education officials had simply kept an appropriate watch over things.

Simply cutting a check and handing it off to a charter school won’t do. Education officials have a responsibility to ensure that the operators of charter schools understand that their institutions are part of the public system. Thus, they can’t inculcate religion.

These schools should also be subjected to the same curriculum checks as traditional public schools. In Texas and Arkansas, it took whistle-blowers to bring the abuses at RES schools to light. It shouldn’t be that way. If state education officials had been doing their jobs, they would have known that RES was pushing creationism and would have put a stop to it before it reached the classroom.

These schools also need to be subjected to the same quality-control measures that are imposed on other public schools. Standardized testing and other efforts at accountability are all the rage in public education right now. One can question the effectiveness of these approaches—standardized testing has its critics and rightly so—but it’s unfair to rigorously subject traditional public schools to these measures and give the charters a pass.

Charter schools must show that they are getting the job done. If they’re not, the charters should be revoked.

Finally, it must be made absolutely clear to everyone from the get-go (school administrators, parents, students, and state officials) that charter schools are not “private schools-lite.” They are public institutions, supported and maintained by the taxpayer.

That means they must follow all applicable laws, including the First Amendment’s dictate of separation of church and state. It’s never too late to learn what’s right.