Charter Schools SHOULD Be Religious


Thanks to alert colleagues, I’ve been following the great series of articles in Slate about creationism and charter schools.  Most recently, we find a map of charter schools that seem to be teaching creationism.  According to this survey by Chris Kirk, plenty of tax-funded charter schools across the nation are teaching creationism.

But is there anything wrong with charter schools teaching creationism?

Don’t get me wrong: I think all students should learn the best science, even if they go to non-tax-funded schools or homeschools.  That should not be a legal requirement, but rather simply a goal for common education and citizenship.  In traditional public schools, we should demand a rigorously pluralist ethos.  No student from any religion or non-religion (or race, or gender identity, or etc.) should ever feel squeezed out due to his or her background.  And I don’t dispute Kirk’s accusation in this Slate piece that lots of charter schools are likely teaching creationism.  As Kirk puts it,

If you live in any of these states, there’s a good chance your tax money is helping to convince some hapless students that evolution (the basis of all modern biological science, supported by everything we know about geology, genetics, paleontology, and other fields) is some sort of highly contested scientific hypothesis as credible as “God did it.”

But let’s step back a moment and examine the real legal, educational, and constitutional issues here.  Let’s not forget that charter schools were created in order to offer more authentic diversity of educational models.  Should that diversity not include religious diversity?

According to a note in the Yale Law Journal a few years back, the proper line between religion and publicly funded charter schools is not as clear cut as journalists and policy-makers often assume.  In that 2008 piece, Benjamin Siracusa Hillman argues that charter schools ought to be allowed or even encouraged to include religious practices and beliefs.

Recent US Supreme Court decisions, Hillman argues (see esp. page 576), support a notion that school districts may legitimately include religious schools without violating the famous 1970 “Lemon Test.”  If a state or school district has a secular purpose in setting up schools—including even religious schools—those schools are more likely to pass constitutional muster.  The goal must not be to serve only one sort of religion.  Nor must school districts hope to exclude non-religious students, or students from other religious backgrounds.  Religious schools may fit into a broad charter school/voucher school network, the Court has suggested, as long as the first purpose is to improve education for all.

Hillman also analyzes the decision of a Michigan court in which parents sued a charter school for cramming religion into their publicly funded school.  The school, according to this federal court ruling, did no wrong in including religion, since it did not force students to engage in religious practice or adopt religious beliefs.

So can publicly funded charter schools teach creationism?  Or, even more provocatively, SHOULD charter school networks work to include schools that teach creationism?

The recent string of Slate articles implies that such practice ought to raise alarm bells.  But if we view creationism as an expression of a religious belief, it seems the rule is not quite so cut-and-dried.  Public school districts have much more leeway to include religious schools than many people seem to think.  Such ignorance can be politically useful.  For example, no one will mobilize to fight against teaching that might be perfectly legal and even desirable.  But some sections of our chattering classes might have better luck with breathless exposes of religion in publicly funded schools.




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  1. Matthew McConn

     /  February 3, 2014

    What about the fact that teaching creationism ensures that the kids have less of a chance of becoming a scientist? The question seems to be more about “What is science?” instead of the teaching of religion. Scientists have implemented the intelligent design theory, and it doesn’t answer nearly as many questions in science as does the theory of evolution. If we want scientists, shouldn’t we be teaching what they do in the scientific community?

    • Matt, Good points, but I think they assume too much. First, what are public schools for? Only if we assume our public schools have the primary purpose of filling needed gaps in our employment grid does it follow that curriculum should be dictated by our needs for more scientists (or dentists, or florists, or whatever.) Second–and you’re in good company here–you suggest that learning evolution is the only way for young people to turn into scientists. Some of the best, most pluralist research universities–including my very own beloved Binghamton University with its second-to-none Biology Department–host PhD students in subjects such as biology who believe in a young-earth and recent creation by divine fiat. Yet they are “scientists,” by any measure.

      • Matthew McConn

         /  February 4, 2014

        Solid. I like your point on public schools and “the primary purpose.” They’re certainly much more than just skills-acquisition.

      • Matthew McConn

         /  February 4, 2014

        But I would argue that those PhD students were taught evolution. I’m not saying a creationist can’t be a scientist; I’m saying that the teaching of evolution is necessary.

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