Debate Forum 02/04

Debate Center: Separation of cash and curriculum – teaching creationism with public funds

Illustration: Joel Pett

By Alex Culpepper

John Freshwater made his Dayton City Paper debut in the March 5, 2013 Commentary Forum (“Court will decide whether Freshwater can teach with holy water”). Freshwater was a science teacher in Mount Vernon, Ohio, who was fired for using religious materials to teach science in his classes and introducing creationism in his evolution lessons. He took his case to the Ohio Supreme Court, and this past November the court ruled against him. Freshwater is not the only teacher in Ohio to introduce creationism alongside the theory of evolution in a school supported by public money. A report by Chris Kirk in Slate claimed about 20 private schools taking public money in the form of a voucher program do the same thing. Other states have similar programs, and the most recent one to get the spotlight is Texas.

Texas is home to a charter program called Responsive Ed – the largest charter program in the state – and it runs schools in Arkansas and Indiana, as well. Responsive Ed receives more than $80 million in public money to keep those schools functioning, and part of their function, according to another article in Slate by Zack Kopplin, is to promote creationism and introduce information about evolution that is either misleading or incorrect.

Now, teaching creationism is not illegal, as long as it is taught in an independently-funded institution, and instructors there would have the right to introduce what they see fit in a science classroom. The problem for some groups is the teaching of creationism and the denial of the theory of evolution are being propped up by public money in those private and charter schools.

Opponents of creationist curriculum in these schools have a simple objection: it’s a violation of separation of church and state under the Constitution, because public money is going to those schools. Outside the constitutional issue, opponents think it’s just bad science at best, because students are given religious doctrine dressed up like a “competing theory,” all devised to discredit an evidence-based theory tested and validated by an overwhelming number of scientists.

Supporters of the science curriculum in these schools say they are not in violation of the Constitution and are promoting critical thinking based on state standards requiring them to examine all sides of scientific theories and information. They believe the science teaching in these schools reflects a critical approach to explore “the existence of competing theories.” In essence, they say they are teaching what the state believes is important.

The Supreme Court has ruled at least twice, calling the teaching of creationism as unconstitutional, but those cases involved public schools where the issue was pretty clear. When creationism involves private and charter schools, the case might not be so neat and tidy. To opponents of programs like Responsive Ed, however, the case is clear. They don’t want public money used in any way for what they believe is anti-science religious indoctrination. Supporters of the program claim their curriculum choices are within the bounds of the Constitution and promote critical scientific inquiry.

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should tax money be used to help advance religious-based curriculums in schools?


Debate Left: Public funding for creationism?

By Marianne Stanley

Historically, this country valued education and recognized the importance of including such elements as music, recess, art, cursive writing and physical education in the curriculum. With the educational waters thus already messed up, the charter school explosion has now muddied them further.This week’s forum question meanders through the sticky thicket of federal and local policy on education, religion and the constitutional issue of separation of church and state. The only way to reach any kind of conclusion is to sidestep all the historical and anecdotal aspects and just go to the central issue – does our Constitution permit government funding for the teaching of religion in public schools? The short answer is “no.” Our First Amendment has been consistently interpreted to forbid government interference in, or support of, religion – period.

Yet, as we continue slip-sliding our way down the slippery slope of ignorance and intolerance that has been fanned into full flame by the far right via FOX and the talking heads, the push to incorporate the religious – and I use that term loosely – beliefs of the minority into the lives of the majority is intensifying. Taking a historical perspective, we are seeing a return to the Dark Ages and the Inquisition where the questioning of solid science has risen to an ugly shout and those who try to live enlightened lives are threatened by state and federal lawmakers who are inserting their narrow, religious views into sweeping legislation.

This government incursion into private realms is exploding exponentially in the lives of all 300-plus million of us. We see it in the unwarranted NSA spy program that’s keeping an eye and an ear on each of us, no matter how seemingly insignificant we are. We see it in the collapse of the middle class and our supposedly free market system, as government policies ensure the offshoring of American jobs, the busting of unions, removal or denial of job benefits, lousy pay and unrealistic working conditions and expectations. We see it in the barbaric laws that strip the right to personal and private sexual and reproductive decisions from women, while erecting no barriers for men. And now we are seeing it in public schools that are being permitted to use faulty textbooks to teach factually unsupported history and science courses.

For instance, positioning the burgeoning religious belief in “creationism” as a “scientific theory” on a par with evolution ignores the fact in everyday usage, “theory” refers to a hunch or a speculation, drawn on fragmentary or inconclusive thought or evidence. The formal scientific definition of “theory” is entirely different, in that it gives a comprehensive explanation supported by a vast body of evidence (proof). For instance, the theory of plate tectonics tells us the Earth is divided into solid plates that move and the heliocentric theory tells us that the Earth orbits around the sun. Both are considered theories, but are established as sound scientific principles. Creationism uses the everyday usage while evolution uses the scientific definition of “theory.”

The strategy Responsive Ed has used is to call things by names other than what they really are.  For instance, it never mentions the word “religion” anywhere in its literature, instead referring to “values” or “the promotion of critical thinking” when it teaches its students creationism and evolution are just two “theories.” Shades of Galileo! That poor guy had to go before the Catholic Inquisition for his “heresy” of teaching the Earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa as the masses then believed. While his life was spared, he spent the final three decades of his life under house arrest, thanks to the intermingling of government and religion. They weren’t called “The Dark Ages” for nothing!

Yet, it’s happening again as government, through legislators who are either evil or narrow-minded or on a strategic mission – or all three – wade forcefully into an arena where they don’t belong and allowing other American institutions, like public schools, to do the same.

The question is: “Should tax money be used to help advance religious-based curriculums in schools?” and the simple and written-in-stone answer should be “NO.” The forum center also cited the problem in Ohio of schools receiving public money to teach “religious-based alternatives to science” but here’s the rub – there is no religious-based alternative to science. Science is science and religion is religion. Religion is personal. Science is universal. Religion is unprovable. Science is provable. And, first and foremost, religion is there to supposedly point the way for human beings to be better, not worse. Religion should show the way to the higher path of goodness, kindness, compassion, understanding, tolerance, peace and – dare I say it? – love for each other, which often shows itself as tolerance for the other’s quite different beliefs and choices.

This foisting of religion onto others is blatantly UN-religious. Legislators today are hugely overstepping their bounds as they insert religion into new laws.  This effort to exert external control over others while stripping personal control from them is un-American and untenable.  This rapid return to absurd, narrow views that should alarm every thinking American must be made visible so we can reclaim a country that truly does allow freedom of speech and to worship, or not, as we want. Intolerance and violence go hand in hand. Let’s send them both skipping on their way.

 Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at


Debate Right: American exceptionalism – deal with it!

By David H. Landon

This weeks’ forum question deals with whether or not some charter schools in the state of Texas are attempting to surreptitiously bring to 17,000 charter school students a conservative educational model which is neither accurate nor constitutional. Critics argue the charter schools in question are attempting to expose the students to an alternate teaching to the established theory of evolution. Furthermore, unlike current liberal doctrine, these charter schools support the concept of American “exceptionalism” in their history curriculum. 

In an investigative article entitled “Texas Public Schools are Teaching Creationism,” writer Zack Kopplin – a 20-year-old, Doogie-Howser-like political activist – ravages the Responsive Education Solutions charter school system of Texas. Young Mr. Kopplin finds the education plan of Responsive Ed to be somehow sinister in their emphasis on America’s Judeo-Christian history. Kopplin spends over 4,000 words to indict the charter schools, arguing “Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.”

As for their approach to American history, the Responsive Ed curriculum does teach America is different than all other countries. Young Kopplin is correct in his assertion these schools teach American “exceptionalism.” They teach America’s uniqueness is explained by a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact we are not restrained by class inequities. The promise of the American dream is available to all. They teach our history has demonstrated the belief America is a celebration of freedoms and our Bill of Rights protects those freedoms. The wet-behind-the-ears Mr. Kopplin may prefer a curriculum that apologizes to the world for America’s past, but the charter schools of Responsive Ed have a different worldview.

Young Kopplin singles out one Texas charter school for using as its American history text, a book entitled “A Patriot’s History of the United States.” Co-authored by local University of Dayton history professor Larry Schweikart, “A Patriot’s History” spent a number of weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List. The book is written from a conservative standpoint. It is a counterpoint to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” asserting the United States is an “overwhelmingly positive” force for good in the world. The basic assumption, which is the foundation of “A Patriot’s History,” is there are principles and purposes reflected in American history that make our somewhat imperfect country worthy of our affection. Schweikart skillfully builds a case that honest accounting of this country’s history should explain those principles and illustrate those purposes as the centerpiece of our nation’s story. Kopplin is lashing out at “A Patriot’s History” because it dares to stray from the liberal mantra of “America is evil! America is evil!”

The charter school movement is one of the fastest growing education reform efforts in the United States. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools freed from much of the regulation found in public schools. Proponents contend charter schools may not only provide families and students with another educational choice, but perhaps – and more importantly – promote change in the public education system as a whole, bringing benefit to all students. During their relatively short history, charter schools have induced systemic changes by providing more educational choices, forcing the public schools to become more competitive through market forces and serving as examples from which other public schools can learn.

In a recent study, it was reported charter schools have helped spur innovation not only in their own classrooms, but also across the public school sector. According to those authors, traditional public schools in urban districts have adopted some charter ideals like engaging parents by marketing their schools, increasing the courses and subjects they offer and replicating charter school practices in order to retain and attract students. As a result, the traditional public schools in these districts offer a more diverse blend of educational curricula than schools that aren’t affected by this competition.

Charter schools educated more than 2 million students in America last year. Milton Friedman once hypothesized about the competitive effect between voucher-receiving private schools and traditional public schools. That competitive affect has spread to this alternative offshoot of the public school system. As a result, urban districts with a high percentage of low-income students are learning from charter experiences to create a more comprehensive learning environment for the children that live in their cities. The study shows a net benefit for students in urban areas where charter schools have been introduced. This benefit appears to have a stronger effect in cities with a greater charter presence than those with fewer of these schools.

There remains great promise in the continued development of the charter school alternative. Perhaps state legislatures need to continue to provide responsible oversight over charter schools, but overall the positive contribution of charter schools will survive the partisan assault of the likes of young Kopplin.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Debate Forum 02/04” Subscribe