A Change In Direction

July 30, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

OAKLAND -- Garrett County's voters gave control of their schools to the Christian right in November, and ever since, the mission of public education has been the hottest talk everywhere you turn here.

It's not because of wholesale changes in curricula or Bible-thumping lectures that might conform to some stereotypical images of what Christian fundamentalists want in public schools. Nothing like that has happened -- although some fear it will.

Even so, it's a new school day for Maryland's westernmost county, which has become the first in the state, and among a small but growing number of places nationally, where the Christian right has won control of policy-making for a public school system. The situation has state and even a couple of national groups watching with interest.

As three fundamentalist board members elected last fall, joined by a fourth member who sometimes votes with them, have begun learning their jobs, Christian-right tenets such as "family values," school prayer, and opposition to federal and state educational mandates have quickly become board meeting fare.

Prayer is back -- if only in the form of invocations local clergy give at school board meetings, not in classrooms or during graduations (although the board has made it clear that valedictorians are free to offer prayers in their speeches).

Notably, monthly school board meetings -- sparsely attended for years -- are attracting untypical crowds that quickly overflow the usual board room and at times have erupted in partisan yelling and clapping.

Jerome Ryscavage, superintendent of the 5,100-student system, who attributed some of the larger attendance to the new makeup of the board that oversees his work, downplays the significance of such activity. New boards, he said, always attract increased public interest.

Asked if the new board was a problem for administrators or teachers or if daily operations of schools have been affected, he replied: "Such has not been the case, not that I can see at this time."

Three substantial issues related to an agenda generally associated with the Christian right have been formally put on the table for consideration in 1995:

* The board voted to open up the process of selecting textbooks and materials to parents and the community. Language in the old policy was unclear and provided less opportunity for parents to review materials before their adoption by the board.

* A board-picked committee is examining guidelines for "outcomes-based education," which set goals for what students are to know in courses and in their schooling.

"My main concern is that this has proven to be an academically failed method of education," said Patrick Riley, a Christian Coalition member and resident of Accident who is one of the new board members. "Test scores have dipped where outcomes-based education has been implemented. There's a de-emphasis on [teaching] concrete factual information."

* Another board committee is examining "multicultural education," a state ruling requiring school districts to include contributions and histories of ethnic and minority groups in courses. Some board members in this heavily white county are concerned that the contributions of traditional historical figures may be overlooked when contributions by minorities are added.

"People are afraid because they don't understand black people," said Charlotte Sebold, 47, a McHenry homemaker in her first term who does not consider herself a member of the Christian Coalition but who has attended some of its meetings. "Fear causes prejudices. People here haven't been subjected to other cultures. It's something we have to step into very carefully."

Teaching morals at issue

Hannah Sincell, 65, in the third year of her first four-year term on the board who considers herself its only member not affiliated with the Christian right, said fears among some extend beyond race.

"They don't want teachers or people in the schools doing anything with morals, values. I get the impression they think homosexuals will get in and teach our children," she said.

"When homosexuality came up at a meeting, I spoke up and said most people weren't homosexual because they wanted to be, and they tooted and howled at me," she said. "They believe their interpretation of the Bible is the only interpretation. I have a problem with that."

And she said: "These people have been questioning everything since day one. They want us to teach their children two plus two is four and c-a-t spells cat, and that's it."

At least two new board members wonder what the fuss is about.

"We're looking out for parental rights more than previously was the case," said Dale Carpenter, a McHenry resident and new board member who belongs to the politically conservative Christian Coalition that television evangelist Pat Robertson founded. "And we're being criticized because of that. . . . We're just making sure parents have some say."

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