Is your school religiously wasting tax dollars?

Chuck Sheketoff

or to put it another way....

Are Your School Tax Dollars Being Used to Breed Measure 36-like Initiatives?

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Recently, the Statesman-Journal reported on the extent to which students in the Dallas (Oregon) School District are allowed to leave classes for religious instruction. The article (Download PDF) explained that “over 1,300” of the District’s 3,000 students leave school to attend bible study at the “Weekday School of the Bible” facility conveniently located next door to each school in the Dallas, Oregon, school district.According to the "Weekday School of the Bible Annual Report to the Dallas School Board, dated October 25, 2005, 1,908 students are enrolled in the program out of 2,602 students in the school district as of that date.

At the Weekday School for the Bible, children are not just rewarded for good behavior and memorizing biblical passages, but they are also rewarded for “bringing new students to class.” That’s right, the more students a kid can pull out of the regular classroom, the better the kid is at being a bible student; I doubt that most supporters of smaller class sizes are praying that these children are successful.

After reading the article, I obtained figures from the school district and learned that this year 80 percent of elementary school students and 70 percent of middle and high school students are enrolled in the Weekday School of the Bible.

If the elementary school children in the Dallas School District are out of the classroom for only for one hour a week in bible study, it means that the school writes off teaching the equivalent of 21 children (total hours missed divided by total hours in a child's school year or 175 days times 6.58 hours per day). Shouldn't the school district lose funding for the equivalent of those 21 children they don't teach each year? Add to that the number of student hours missed in the middle and high schools.

According to a policy from the Superintendent included in the District's teachers' handbook, when a majority of the students are missing from a class due to religious instruction "the introduction of new material is educationally unjustified and not appropriate."

At a time when school districts throughout Oregon are rightly complaining about having inadequate tax resources, many of these same school districts, including Portland Public Schools, have policies letting children out of classes to attend religious instruction.

The Dallas School District lets over 70 percent of its kids miss school for religious instruction by the Weekday School of the Bible, yet the District pleaded (unsuccessfully) with voters this past November 2nd to approve a local option tax levy to partially offset the fact that over the past three years State of Oregon general fund revenue has declined approximately $3,000,000 or 14% for Dallas schools, 39 teaching positions have been reduced (20%), 26 classified positions have been reduced (22%), and 2.5 administrative staff have been reduced (19%).

In my book, schools shouldn't complain about losing teachers and programs when they are letting school kids leave during the day to attend religious instruction, with all its attendant disruptions to the regular teaching. And advocates for schools - parents, students, teachers, school boards, administrators, Governor Ted Kulongoski, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo - ought to be working to shut down this waste of tax dollars.

State law, ORS 339.420, gives school districts the authority to allow elementary students to leave for periods not exceeding two hours in any week for religious instruction, and secondary pupils may attend weekday schools giving instruction in religion for up to five hours a week. It does not require that schools grant that type of leave, it merely allows them to grant it and places a time limit on the leave. No where does the law provide that the the leave be used to stop teaching new material to those students who choose to stay in school. And the law does not require that schools helplessly let churches and other religious institutions determine class schedules. Schools have discretion to regulate religious release time. Sadly, too often they have been afraid to exercise it.

Here in Silverton, at one of our elementary schools, the “Bible Bus,” a converted school bus Img_0084owned by the local ministerial alliance, is allowed to park on a side street that separates the school from its athletic field and is posted as closed to thru traffic each school day and is permanently marked as for "bus parking only during school hours."

During the winter months the bus is connected to the school by an electrical cable so the religion instructor and the young children have lights and heat. The local ministerial alliance that runs the Bible Bus program is supposed to pay the School District for the electricity. Of course the kindergarten through third grade students who attend the elementary school can fully comprehend that even though the Bible Bus is connected to the school via an umbilical cord of sorts, is yellow and shaped like a school bus, and is allowed to park where only school buses can park, it is not part of their public school system.

Imagine how confusing religious release time is for the students at the St. Mary's Public Elementary School in Mt. Angel.

No one in Oregon, not even Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo, can tell you today how many student hours are lost or disrupted throughout the State due to schools allowing students to leave class for religious instruction. While religious release time can help in reducing class size momentarily, how disruptive is religious release time? Can and do teachers really continue teaching new material, no matter how many students leave for the religious instruction? In Dallas they don't. The teachers' manual explicitly directs teachers to stop teaching new material during those times that a majority of the class is released for religious instruction.

That's right, those who stay are not engaged in learning new material as an accommodation to those who leave for religious instruction during school hours. You wouldn't want those students who head over to the School of the Bible to miss learning about evolution, social studies, or personal health, let alone reading, writing, and arithmatic!

How many schools across the State are helping facilitate religious instruction by stopping teaching, sending children home with permission slips, working out scheduling problems, or giving special logistical permission such as the Bible Bus parking privileges?

The Dallas policy states that the District does "not want to penalize those who leave or those who remain in a classroom." Isn't stopping the instruction of new material penalizing students who remain? Is concern about those who choose to leave public entanglement in private, religious instruction?

These and other questions ought to be answered. And even when answered, I think complaints about large class sizes and too few programs because of too few financial resources are undermined when schools have the inherent inefficiency - they are wasting tax dollars - of allowing students to skip classes for religious instruction sanctioned by the school board and administration. Religious instruction should take place before and after school hours and on weekends, not during school hours on school days when tax dollars are being spent.

Check out your school or school district to see just how religiously they are wasting your tax dollars by letting students leave for religious instruction during the school day.

Those of us on the left who care about adequately funding our schools need to work diligently to put an end to the religious release time which undermines the efficiency of the schools and our arguments that schools need more money.

Comments

  • Jonathan (unverified)
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    As I understand the state of law (with some experience on this kind of issue), schools are constitutionally required to give some release time. But your assertion that this wastes tax dollars doesn't make sense. If a 30-student classroom is transformed into a 20-student classroom because 10 students went to a privately-funded Bible study, aren't tax dollars being spent on the 20 students by having a lower student-teacher ratio for a period of time?

  • Justin (unverified)
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    This post epitomizes why the Democrats lost the election.

    We've got a war in Iraq, a horrrendous deficit and you're concerned about students leaving school to attend a Bible Study.

    When Republicans say Democrats are "out of touch with mainstream society" this is what they mean.

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    Jonathan, when a majority of students leave a Dallas School District class for bible study, and when a significant number leave there and in other districts, teachers stop teaching new material. Aside from the entanglement of church and state, it is distruptive to providing education with limited tax dollars.

    Under your logic/analysis, then the Left who want smaller class sizes ought to be helping the Christian Right organize stronger religious release time programs throughout the state as a means for reducing class size.

    That's not a tact I would pursue.

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    Nothing new about students leaving classrooms to attend Bible classes once a week. I can remember students going to those classes back in the 50's right here in Oregon. I also remember enjoying being read to while the other students were away and having the time to read library books. I always looked forward to Wednesday's, it felt like a reward.

  • Chris Bouneff (unverified)
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    This happens all over the country, as it rightly should. For many families, this is an important component of their daily lives, and making accommodations for their children in public schools is something we can do as a society to ensure that families can exercise their personal faith and not feel that faith has to be excluded from all public activities.

    I don't understand why this is bad. Are kids in Dallas dumber than others in Oregon and across the nation because of this practice?

    I'm a liberal. I believe in separation of church and state. Religion shouldn't enter the school doors. But we also should make reasonable accommodations to those who wish to integrate their faith into their daily lives unless we can show with good information that it truly hurts the learning environment.

  • Ellen C. Lowe (unverified)
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    I wish that the energy and resources that are being directed to release time religious instruction were instead supporting after school programs for these same students. I wonder how many of these youngsters are going home to empty homes or to inadequate supervision. I belong to a congregation that provides quality infant and toddler childcare. Our service is our witness. The Church Lady

  • Shetha (unverified)
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    Funny, when I was fasting for Ramadhan I was still instructed to go to the lunch room during lunch time. I asked if I could spend time elsewhere like the library or an empty classroom (to do homework). Instead I was told that since there would be no supervision I would not be allowed. So I sat and watched everyone around me eat as I pondered my growling stomach and how it must feel for all those people who aren't as fortunate as the kids who surrounded me. I guess the point is that kids are only in school so many hours a day. If their religious beliefs require them to do something, it should be allowed. If it's something they want to do, it should be extra-carricular. Just my $0.02.

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    Shetha,

    Practicing one's religion without interfering with other students is, and ought to be, allowed. They should have accomodated you, just as they allow Christians to wear crosses around their necks.

    Your situation was different than a non-school group taking children away from school time to "educate" them about their religion from their particular point of view and interrupting the educational opportunities of those who do not participate in that extra-curricular activity.

  • Shetha (unverified)
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    Chuck, I was in South Texas at the time so my needs were fairly well marginalized. At the same time I was basically trying to say it's a fine line and finding a dilineation that makes all parties happy is the real task at hand. Much like the larger task at hand in the current political state of the country. And I meant to write extracurricular. I am much better at speaking math than I am at English...

  • the prof (unverified)
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    Chuck,

    How about kids that leave early for athletics. Is that OK? How about kids that leave early to work at jobs. Is that OK?

    Unless you have evidence that kids leaving discourages teachers from introducing new material (you just assert this without evidence), I'm unconvinced.

  • Elizabeth Cage (unverified)
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    It's probably just that Australians are different than Americans -- not as religious in general. But the public schools here teach religious studies as a normal curriculum component for all students -- covering major world religions.

    I suppose that would trouble some religious parents more than no religious education but I would guess some are happy to have some religion covered in school and then take it to the next level at home.

    My husband is a teacher and during his practice teaching term he worked at an all girls public school with an 85% Muslim student body. He taught the religious studies component and some kids worked hard to convert him to Islam and others were really curious about Christianity and Judaism -- not as a faith they were considering embracing but just they didn't really know anything about them. I'd have to wonder if those kids -- grounded in their own faith but exposed in public school to the history of others -- won't end up more accepting of differences in society than their American peers attending schools which barely mention religion of any sort and where kids with faith have to sneak off (or be led off) to pray.

    I tend to be pretty dubious of those who proclaim great religious faith – I’m willing to consider that is not only because my education and parents encouraged me to develop my abilities for rational thought but also because I just wasn’t exposed to much religious faith as a kid and was never taught just what it is the various major religions believe and their histories. Considering how much of human history has been driven by faith of one sort or another the fact that we can’t teach kids about those faiths in public school for fear of dancing over a church and state separation may be doing us more harm than good. You know, if more Democrats understood where Republican voting Christians were coming from maybe they’d listen when we spoke of poverty and compassion etc.

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    Response to Elizabeth and the Prof:

    Elizabeth:

    Public schools in Oregon can teach comparative religion, and I have no problem with that. The issue here is that schools let students leave class for private religious instruction, regardless of whether it is comparative religion (and I seriously doubt any of the time spent in religious release time is in studying comparative religion - it certainly isn't in Dallas - see the article).

    The Prof:

    I put my allegation in quotes because it comes directly from the page of the handbook that Superintendent of Dallas Schools sent me. Why do you question my veracity and accuse me of fabricating the claim? Not very Christian of you.

    I will scan the page and post it in the not too distant future.

    Athletics are open to all and have to meet state standards; instruction during religious release time is not necessarily open to all - for instance, a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu child would not feel very comfortable at the Weekday School of the Bible. See the picture above where the child is alleging that "God said, to get to heaven...Jesus is the only way." And teachers have to meet standards, where as religious release time teachers don't, nor do they have to have criminal background checks, etc.

    Have you spoken with teachers in the schools where religious release time is prevalent? I have, and I know its not conducive to teaching. And as you will see when I post it, the policy in Dallas schools is that if a majority of the students are missing, don't teach new material. That creates a Catch-22 that prevents the teacher from not harming remaining children.

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    I have linked the policy from the staff handbook in the blog which states that "When the majority of students are not present in a classroom [due to religious release time], the introduction of new material is educationally unjustified and not appropriate."

  • Eric Berg (unverified)
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    Chuck,

    School districts accomodating voluntary religious instruction is legal and reasonable. Advocating to stop it will do nothing to help Oregon's revenue and funding crisis and will be percieved as an attack the values and faith of many families. Belonging to a congregation is important to many families and is a big part of many communities.

    If certain schools or districts are "helpless" or irresponsible in release policies, it should be dealt with a the local level. I couldn't link to the SJ article to read it, but if the paper is covering it, it must be a concern.

    I know your're speaking for yourself, but I would not like to see your views here be expressed through OCPP.

    We all should be very concerned with the increasing over church-state issues. I don't think where the Bible Bus is parked is one to get worked up over, though.

    You think things are confusing at St. Marys Public School now? I grew up in Mt. Angel and attended St. Mary's in the 1970s. Throughout the day, Catholic students went downstairs where two nuns had few rooms for religion class. The few non-Catholic students stayed in the regular class or went to the library. Altar boys left class to serve at funerals accross the street. It was great to get out of class. Families usually gave us a few bucks, too. My second and third grade teachers were nuns who were employed by the district.

    I was suprised when Mt. Angel decided to name the new school St. Mary's Public School after the old St. Mary's had to be replaced after the 1993 earthquake. The original building was a former parrish school that was leased when Mt. Angel formed it's own school district. At the time, it was probably easier just to keep the name.

  • (Show?)

    I agree with Eric that voluntary religious instruction is legal and reasonable, taken in and of itself.

    But the problem is that it doesn't stop there.

    Experiences like Shetha's are only too common when rural schools such as Eric's and mine are presented with the needs of students who come from other religious backgrounds.

    Often, students like Shetha, and like the Gauvin twins, with whom I attended, are forced to do without such a "break" to sate their spiritual needs, and despite the best of intentions and extenuating circumstances, it's not only wrong, but it favors one set of religions over another - rough sledding for an underfunded school district.

    I'm familiar with Mt. Angel's school system, and I imagine that the predominance of Roman Catholics in town, plus its proximity to the Abbey, would easily account for the Bible School situation Eric describes there. I went to school in the next town - Eric and I later attended high school together.

    But my own experience was worlds apart from that. I grew up with major OP (Calvinist) influence in my family. It seems weird now that my Catholic, LDS, Protestant, plus everybody but Jehovah's Witness classmates all formed two lines and piled into the First Baptist Church immediately next door. I went, too, until I felt uncomfortable with its teachings.

    Two points and then I'll shut up:

    • voluntary school release for worship, again, is reasonable. But students who've made firm choices in faiths that their schools cannot accommodate do not deserve to be treated like pariahs or infidels in their school. The public school is acting on behalf of government, and in loco parentis, and to do something like that, even if every faculty member and every kid but one is a {whatever}, is wrong. I saw it happen myself, so while I'm convinced of the original concept, its practice is at best flawed.

    • Even in a town like Silverton, where there are more churches than bars, you can't walk every kid to his church in the middle of the day. Bible Break is a great thing for some kids, but schools aren't and shouldn't be obligated to provide it, especially with the shortening school year, so if they can't, or choose not to, that isn't a bad thing, either. Kids have plenty of free time, especially now, and their parents or guardians can accommodate that worship, then.

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    For the folks who are arguing that kids should be allowed to get private religious release time ("bible break") during school hours, I have one question:

    What's wrong with doing it after school? Why should it be happening during math/reading/phys-ed time?

    Extra-curricular should be EXTRA-curricular -- not in replacement of the state-required curricula.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)
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    There's noting wrong with doing it after school, before school or during a lunch period. This would be ideal. However, a fight to change the law allowing religious release wouldn't help solve Oregon's revenue and budget woes. Worse, it would be seen as an attack on all those "values voters". It would never pass. Let's say it did. We'd see a ballot measure restoring it. If there are a handful of parents who are concerned about thier district's release policy, organize and express your concerns to the school board.

  • Randy (unverified)
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    The problem, as it appears to me, is simple.

    We give schools $X to teach our children a Y amount of curriculum over Z school hours.

    Putting aside what the Y curriculum might be (anyone heard of teacher complaints about having to devote longer and longer hours to teaching for the LNCB testing), if we remove 36 hours from Z, then everyone loses and the taxpayers are not getting what they originally provided from the $X invested.

    OTOH, I see a lot of opportunities for interesting mischief here.... do you suppose Ken Kesey's old bus is available for an alternative form of pull-out religious education?

  • Becky (unverified)
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    What I find interesting about this is that Christian parents, who supposedly are all about their kids learning the 3 Rs and who get all tied up in knots about all the other stuff kids are learning in school are willing to allow their kids to get out of the 3 Rs to go to a religion class to learn information they really should be getting in Sunday School and at home. I've seen this phenomenon in a lot of fundamentalists - at the mere mention of the Bible, their eyes practically glaze over and all sense of personal thinking or logic is wiped away. If there is any area where I wish fundamentalists would wake up it is their apparent inability (not all of them, of course) to recognize they were made with a brain and they're expected to use it, and that just because someone invokes the Bible or the name of Jesus to support a hair-brained idea (such as pulling kids out of class to go to Bible study) doesn't mean their logic filter should be turned off.

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