Christian Right Widens Battlefield

September 04, 1994|By ANNE HADDAD

It used to be that religious groups rallied around one school issue at a time. Devout Christians could be counted on to oppose sex education, or the witches in a children's book or science curriculums that don't teach creationism.

But during the past five years, conservative Christians have gone to school on the U.S. education system and taken on a broader range of subjects and the broader subject of education reform. It's an easy target, because the reform is usually fraught with education jargon that alienates parents and invites misinterpretation.

A trend called "outcomes-based education," with its ambitious goals and philosophy, mobilized Christians around the country the past three years. They are fighting it at the grass-roots level of parents against school board, at the state level with legislatures and governors, and at the ballot box, where many outcomes foes are running for the school board, such as in Carroll County this fall.

The anti-outcomes movement was born in Pennsylvania, where a conservative activist and former teacher named Peg Luksik evolved into the Phyllis Schlafly of education.

Ms. Luksik directs the Pennsylvania Parents Commission. In 1991, she and her organization shifted their focus to a set of 52 "exit outcomes" her state's Board of Education adopted. The group now helps other conservative parents throughout the nation, and a videotape of one of Ms. Luksik's lectures circulates through an informal network, the way it traveled through church groups in Carroll County last year.

Now, all over the country, conservative parents are taking a more active role, perusing curriculum guides and tests to see whether their school systems are misbehaving.

* In California, a conservative group briefly succeeded in getting the state to pull three short stories from an exam given to all 10th-graders in public schools. The state Legislature passed a bill last week that would require that parents be allowed to have their children excused from the test.

* In Virginia, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder halted a controversial outcomes-based education plan last year. The new governor, Republican George Allen, agrees with the decision.

* The fate of Kentucky's 1990 school reform law allowing a new state exam similar to California's is the center of a pitched political battle.

* In Alabama, a court-ordered school finance system backed by education reformers is in jeopardy. Opponents are pushing a "back-to-basics" approach.

* And in Westchester County, N.Y., a coalition of liberal groups and some clergy held a news conference just before school board elections last spring to charge that the Christian Coalition was running "stealth candidates" whose right-wing views would

not be revealed until after the election.

Televangelist Pat Robertson founded the nonprofit Christian Coalition five years ago. The group has a mailing list of 1.3 million names, spokesman Mike Russell said, and is interested in any issue, including education, that affects families.

The Christian Coalition claims it neither recruits nor endorses candidates. The organization surveys people running for office and disseminates the results so that voters can hold politicians accountable later, Mr. Russell said. The surveys don't give room for explanations, just a simple "support" or "oppose" answer, even on a subject such as outcomes-based education, which can mean different things in different school systems.

Outcomes-based education is a broad term that means schools set clear, specific goals for what students should learn. The goals can range from the specific for a given day's geography lesson (the child will learn to find Peru on a map) to broad ones (the child will be an able communicator).

The broad goals usually are called "exit outcomes." In other words, they say what the outcome of education should be by the time a student graduates, or "exits" the school system. The student should be an able communicator in both language and numbers, says the first exit outcome in Carroll County Schools. The student should be a perceptive problem-solver, an involved citizen, an individual with a positive self-image.

The opposition started with concern over words that sprout in most of the reform manifestoes that educators are writing. The problem seems to be that the words mean one thing to educators and something else to conservative Christians.

For instance, multicultural education usually means to educators that schools will teach more than just the white, European view of the world. But Christians fear the gay lifestyle will find protection and advocacy.

Words such as "self-esteem" and "positive self-image" enter the touchy realm of "humanism," a word Christians use to describe anything that places humans above God.

"Global citizen" and "cooperative learning" connote socialism to some conservatives, such as William Bowen, a retired Baltimore teacher who now lives in Carroll and has been among the leaders in the anti-outcomes movement in the suburban counties.

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