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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Help save a good district from itself

My kids are having a great public school experience. We’re in a very strong district, and our three immediate schools are highly ranked and award-winning, with brilliant, professional teachers and administrators.

Though bad things do happen, the bad is hugely outweighed by the good. And when things do go south, a thoughtful approach usually gets a good result.

But now I’m dealing with a spot of unpleasantness at the top — the school board.

In seven days, the Fulton County (GA) School Board will vote on a proposal to rescind the district’s excellent and clear church/state separation policy and procedure, as well as the equally good Teaching of Religion policy (for full text, click the links). Not revise, not replace, but erase entirely.

I contacted my board member to ask what the reasoning was. “These items are covered by state law,” she said, “and therefore redundant. Hope that helps.”

It didn’t.

Countless district policies mirror state law. I’ll bet the policies stating that “students may not threaten to plant a bomb” and “may not knowingly make false calls to emergency services” are at least hinted at somewhere in the law.

Teachers and principals run into church-state issues all the time. When they need guidance in this complicated area, teachers and admins turn not to state law but to district policy. My wife Becca, a schoolteacher, assures me that she wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to look for the law. I gave up myself after 30 minutes online. And I practically Google for a living.

I thanked the board member for her reply and asked if she might point me to the state law in question. No reply after 17 days. Apparently she has no idea where to look, either.

Though it might cover the same general territory, state law is unlikely to include the helpful details present in those policies: the difference between devotional and non-devotional religious symbols in class projects, for example, whether a religious song can be included in a school concert, whether prayers or religious references are permissible at school-sponsored events and in what context. Good and helpful stuff.

This issue should worry religious parents every bit as much as the nonreligious. In the absence of clear guidelines, most teachers and principals overcompensate, disallowing even permissible religious expressions and activity. The result for many districts has been expensive free exercise lawsuits by religious parents whose children have been inappropriately muzzled. Lose clarity and accessibility and everyone loses.

It would be easy to ring the theocracy alarm here, but despite appearances, I don’t think that’s what’s going on. It’s more banal. For one thing, several unrelated policies are also on the chopping block in what looks to be a periodic barn cleaning. And although some district or state boards are packed with zealots or fools, ours seems to consist of decent people whose occasional cluelessness has more to do with the amount on their plates than any dark intentions. But whether it’s cluelessness or malice, the result is potentially the same. I can’t stand by and watch them casually sweep away policies that many other districts — including some recently or currently embroiled in church/state lawsuits — would die for.

I wrote to another board member who gave the same state-law answer. I gave my arguments for retaining the policies and asked what I could do to prevent the rescission. Again, no reply. So after consulting with the Georgia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I’m going over the school board’s heads, to the public. (Psst…that’s you.)

The vote on rescission is scheduled for June 14. Here’s what you can do to help:

If you are a resident of Fulton County, Georgia and agree that these policies and procedure should remain in place, find out who your board member is and write a concise, reasonable but firm email expressing your strong conviction that these two policies and one procedure should stay right where they are. If you have kids in school, name the school.

If you are not a resident of Fulton County GA, please share this post. You just might have a friend or two who is.

If you are in a district that has been embroiled in church/state messes, you might drop a note to tell my district how helpful clear policy can be. It means less head-butting, fewer lawsuits, and fewer distractions from the education of our kids.

Thanks in advance for whatever you can do.

Links to the three items
Teaching of Religion Policy
Separation of Church and State Policy
Separation of Church and State Procedure

Fulton County School Board email addresses (Please be civil so our tone doesn’t become the issue.)

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Comments

comments

This was written on Tuesday, 07. June 2011 at 17:02 and was filed under action, Atlanta, church-state separation, schools. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. Ok, according to a decision by the Georgia Attorney General in 1996, “Teachers may teach only evolution or teachers may teach other theories concerning the origin of life, but the decision about what to teach must have a secular purpose and teachers may not intentionally endorse religion or a religious practice in their teachings.” 1996 Op. Att’y Gen. No. 96-6

    That is the only part of the Georgia Code I found concerning the teaching of religion. The statute doesn’t cover it at all. It only says that each district must use the core curriculum established by the state board and that each local unit may, “expand and enrich this curriculum to the extent it deems necessary and appropriate for its students and communities.” O.C.G.A. ยง 20-2-140 (2011)

    I was only able to find this info using LexisNexis Legal research engine, FYI. Hope this helps.

    Comment: Cass81 – 07. June 2011 @ 8:11 pm

  2. Thanks Cass, that’s helpful in several respects, including being limited in scope, general in language, and hard to find.

    Comment: Dale – 07. June 2011 @ 8:17 pm

  3. The sad thing is that even when the Board does figure out how to cite specific state laws, they often get it wrong! My kids’ district is currently embroiled in an issue over the district policy regarding parent volunteer qualifications (background checks etc.). It has nothing to do with church/state separation at all, but I’m struck by the similar level of cluelessness and unresponsiveness. After much sound and fury over the “new” requirements (which, it turned out, had actually been approved some years ago but never previously enforced!), the Superintendent issued a “FAQ” which cited several sections of the state Education Code…none of which, when one reads them, actually apply. *headdesk*

    And if anecdotes help at all, I’ve a young relative in Pennsylvania who was invited to bring his favorite book to class, as part of his “star student” week in first grade, and was much to his dismay told that his choice was not acceptable because it was a religious story. (It had angels in it, I believe.) This, I expect, is exactly what you meant by “disallowing even permissible religious expressions and activity.” I have no idea what their district policies are but it’s obvious (to me anyway) that if there is one, it’s less than clear.

    Comment: hollyml – 07. June 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  4. YES, Holly! That book example is exactly what I mean. That book is entirely permissible because it originated with the student. But teachers will generally play it safe, and in so doing risk a free exercise suit AND needlessly stir up anger and resentment among religious parents.

    Comment: Dale – 07. June 2011 @ 8:54 pm

  5. Thanks, Dale, for bringing this to our attention. I have three kids in Fulton County schools (one in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school), and my wife is a Fulton County teacher, so this issue hits home for me. We’ve only had one (relatively minor) church/state issue with the Fulton schools we’ve encountered in the eight years we’ve lived in Georgia, although my wife was impacted by the infamous Cobb county science book disclaimer sticker policy when she taught middle science there a few years ago.

    I drafted an email to Linda Schultz, who is our school board member, praising the existing policies (which I agree are worded surprisingly well) and asking the board to vote to retain them as is.

    Thanks again for keeping us informed!

    Comment: Richard Whisenhunt – 07. June 2011 @ 11:37 pm

  6. In neighboring state Florida, school “law” is more than statute. The state education rules/guidelines have the force of law and so do various state board rulings and case decisions and written “opinions” issued by the department’s general counsel. And state supreme court decisions, of course. So just because it can’t be found in statute . . .

    Comment: JJ Ross – 08. June 2011 @ 8:02 am

  7. @Richard: You and I are apparently the same person: one child each in Fulton elementary, middle and high, and married to a Fulton teacher. Thanks for writing to Linda!

    @JJ: Exactly. So if that complexity isn’t rendered down to a policy, teachers in need of guidance end up playing “Where’s Waldo?”

    Comment: Dale – 08. June 2011 @ 8:25 am

  8. Any chance the district is systematically revising and recoding its entire policy manual in chunks, and this hearing is just one part of that larger legal process? That does need doing every few years and can take a year or two to do comprehensively. And/or redoing all policy to comport with the latest legislative changes perhaps?

    (If so, I’d agree this ill-advised change is likely banal though certainly still to be resisted. If not though, if this is singling out religion/prayer as the one thing being removed from existing policy with the vague “covered elsewhere” rationale, then not so much.)

    Comment: JJ Ross – 08. June 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  9. @JJ: Yes, it is exactly that, part of the periodic revision. That’s why I see not conspiracy but ineptitude. Several other minor policies are going as well, and they’ve obliviously swept these crucial items into that pile.

    Comment: Dale – 08. June 2011 @ 6:05 pm

  10. I actually am a resident of Fulton County. Incidentally, I am also seeking my first high school teaching position. I will write a letter, and I will circulate this post to local friends in education.

    And seeing as all teachers know there is never a wrong moment for some cleverly placed butt-kissing: I stumbled upon this blog forever ago and although I am not yet a parent, I couldn’t leave. As someone heading into the classroom, I have learned tremendously from the posts here and the positive, pro-active focus on education. Thank you.

    Comment: Allison – 09. June 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  11. Thank you Allison! I never tire of hearing that the blog has been useful. Good luck as you (hopefully) head into the classroom! Greatest profession on Earth.

    Comment: Dale – 09. June 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  12. I don’t live in Fulton county but if any of you ever need a resource person to address the school board about the teaching of evolution in the public schools feel free to call on me for assistance.

    -Mark Farmer
    Professor of Biology -Univ. Georgia
    mafarmerga@yahoo.com

    Comment: mafarmerga – 14. June 2011 @ 8:17 am

  13. Years ago, serving on school board committees, I was struck by the number of parents who were militantly determined to interject religion into every aspect of public school life, such as the Goals Statement for the elementary school where parents were determined to include statements such as “students should learn to give credit and praise to God and Jesus Christ for all the wonders in their lives”. It took a major effort to persuade these members to not include such language

    Comment: entlord – 16. June 2011 @ 6:39 am

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