Flunking public education

April 10, 2003

U.S. EDUCATION Secretary Rod Paige has some homework to do.

During an interview published this week by the Baptist Press wire service, Secretary Paige said he believes children fare better in schools with a "strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have strong faith." He added that he finds the antipathy toward religion in public schools puzzling.

"In a religious environment, the value system is set," Mr. Paige explained. "That's not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values."

These comments suggest the nation's chief advocate for public schools doesn't quite grasp the concept of "public." Further, he seems to think the Christian community has cornered the market on values that many others might argue are universal.

Worst of all, he is apparently oblivious to the debate over character education in public schools. Its advocates in Maryland and elsewhere credit it with instilling such virtues as honesty, charity and respect for others without an overlay of religious dogma.

It seems extreme - not to mention uncharitable - to demand, as some critics have, that the secretary recant his remarks or resign. He is a deeply religious man who often speaks with the exuberance of an evangelist about the role faith has played in his own life.

But when Mr. Paige's comments are read in the context of the heavily religious tone of the Bush administration - with its crusades for school vouchers and faith-based initiatives - public school officials groan in unison. They are tired of being caught in the crossfire of political battles over school prayer, and fear he might start another one.

If Secretary Paige studied up a bit, he might understand his job better.

He could research the separation of church and state, and learn why the Founding Fathers thought this principle was so important they enshrined it in the First Amendment.

From a visit to some of the schools he oversees, he might also discover those "so many different kids" in public schools, regardless of their religious or nonreligious traditions, actually share many values.

Their diversity is considered a virtue. If public schools teach any value, it should be that.

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