Ed reform born again?

Whenever the Southern Baptists make the news, I often remember the question about the falling tree in the forest. If there's no one around to listen, does it make any noise?

It's easy to ignore the rantings of Bruce Shortt of Texas and Roger Moran of Missouri, who plan to bring before the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Greensboro this June a resolution calling for the faithful to develop an exit strategy from the public schools. After all, a similar resolution was floated at the 2004 convention and never got out of committee.

But the education world should pay attention to what happens in North Carolina next month. Shortt and Moran are back, and this time their proposal is likely to draw more attention.

They're not only asking, as they did in 2004, for all church members to withdraw from "godless" public schools. Now, according to the Associated Press, the two are also calling on the Southern Baptist Church to develop a system of independent parochial schools to be used by "orphans, [and] children of single parents and the disadvantaged."

The change is deliberate, and it's meant to broaden support for Shortt and Moran's anti-public schools position. It's working for people such as Ed Gamble, executive director of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, who opposed the 2004 resolution, but is on record supporting the development of Christian-run "public" school systems. In a February 2006 story in Ethics Daily, Gamble suggested that Baptist churches use their buildings during the week to house a new school system. "Funding is not the problem," Gamble said, "faith is."          

That more high-performing schools-and facilities to house them-are needed in the inner-city is undisputed. But so, too, is the fact that creating effective urban schools is extremely difficult. And there's nothing in the Southern Baptists' recent history to suggest they're capable of doing this. Worse, there's nothing to suggest that this is their interest.

The number of conservative Christian schools, including Southern Baptist ones, is small, but growing. Most, however, are located in suburbs and exurbs, attracting middle and upper-middle class parents interested in balancing academics with their particular form of faith. Even with this advantage, they generally don't do as well as Catholic schools, according to a recent NAEP study of private schools.

The Catholic Church in America has a long history of running inner city schools, sometimes with great success. Like Southern Baptist schools, Catholic schools believe that faith is an integral part of education. But the two diverge over how to integrate faith and learning. For most Catholic schools, the primary concern is for quality education. Students are not required to become Catholic (in fact, at most inner-city Catholic schools, the vast majority of students aren't).

This would not be the case with a Southern Baptist system of parochial schools. Again, the words of Gamble: "Ask God to give us America's children. When Jesus owns the schools, He will own the culture and the hearts of the children!"

It may sound outside the mainstream, but the Southern Baptists have a track record of setting the debate in American education. The success of "Intelligent Design," fueled largely by the religious right, speaks for itself. But Intelligent Design wasn't helped along only by devoutly religious voters. More moderately inclined religious citizens, who rejected "Creationism" in the 1990s, rallied around the supposedly more scientific Intelligent Design argument in this decade. And they did it despite the fact that Intelligent Design was orchestrated and funded by the same folks who supported Creationism.

Shortt and Moran are taking a page from the ID debate. By expanding their resolution, they are attempting to place themselves in the mainstream of the reform movement, and thereby attract more-moderate Christians. It's working. In addition to Gamble, Albert Mohler, president of the denomination's flagship Southern Seminary in Louisville, is on board. And religious blogs are burning with discussion about it (see here, here, and here, for instance).

Religious and non-religious groups who are working to raise student achievement and improve educational opportunities know how challenging those jobs can be. And help is always appreciated. But what Shortt and Moran propose is not about achievement or educational opportunity. It's about converting individuals to a particular religious belief. Let them open the schools if they will, but don't be fooled into thinking this is about high quality education.

If the tree falls, let's be sure that serious education reformers are there to listen.

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