Standing up for right or sitting down because it’s cheaper?

by Mr. Sheehy

For a grad class at USD, I’m reading a pair of textbooks and turning in my reflections here. The 7th chapter of Provenzo’s text was a basically bland rundown of the private school layout in America, along with a quick explanation of church and state issues surrounding public schools. As a chapter, this was unexciting and unsurprising, but the issues he mentions are particularly touchy.

I have taught at a private school (ACIC in Caracas, Venezuela), have friends who teach at private school, am married to a private high school graduate, and am seriously considering homeschooling my children during primary school, so I imagine I see the private school scene differently than many of my public school colleagues. Basically, when it comes to people’s opinions about private schools, I don’t understand the hostility that often emerges. Everyone I know who attends or attended a private school has a particular personal reason for attending, and I know none who hold a grinding anger at public school. Yet it is not rare to meet one who acts like private school attendees are snobby brats who think they’re too good for public education. Maybe that’s a run-over bitterness about the political battle over vouchers. If so, that’s too bad.

The other issue in this chapter that strikes me as crucial is the separation of church and state. Here’s my rub with this: many people think that separation somehow implies a division within a person, similar to Wemmick’s division between business life and personal life in Dickens’s Great Expectations. It’s as if the expectation is that one’s religious convictions are fine when dealing with personal morality and private beliefs, but it is not okay when those beliefs inform issues dealing with other subjects or people. That’s where JFK’s argument about his public office and private beliefs is often trotted out. But even in literature, the division cannot be complete: Wemmick is unable to perfect his separation and pieces seep over from one life to the other in his effort to help his friend, Pip.

Why does this concern me? Because in our lawsuit world, schools often base at least their initial reactions on lawsuit-avoidance rather than what is right and what is constitutional. (I’m not just talking hypothetical on that – I’ve seen this but would not dare articulate details in a published blog.) So a teacher could be well informed about court cases regarding the first amendment (like the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that clearly defended teachers’ rights to teach about religion), and understand clearly that she is prohibited from any behavior that could be considered proselytizing and that she “may not organize, sponsor, or otherwise entangle [herself] in religious activities during the school day” and still be reprimanded for being real with students. I am a teacher who builds relationships with students by being 100% genuine. Will that land someone like me in the bad end of a lawsuit or at least in a superintendent’s office on bad terms?

Here in South Dakota, a Sioux Falls case wound up in court a few years ago when the school district objected to a teacher leading a Bible study group that took place in the school where she taught. She attended the group in a private capacity and the group was using the building after school hours, just as any other group, but the school was concerned it would look like they were endorsing a specific religion. In New Jersey, a football coach had to go to court to win the right to kneel (one knee) when students prayed before the game. He wasn’t leading the prayer, simply bowing with student-led worship.

Anyway, that is to say that enough cases exist to make administrators nervous, and since the the line for right and wrong is not clear to one unstudied in the issue, I am not hopeful about good teachers escaping reprimand or legal actions. Unfortunately, I suppose, in a world where money talks, avoiding a lawsuit by staying “on the cheap” might prove more important than demonstrating what is right. But the problem is, if that is the case, when the schools – the institutions teaching our children and holding up the collective ideal – begin basing their decisions on that manner of thinking, who will stand up for what is right before what is profitable?

Provenzo, E.F. (2002). Teaching, learning and schooling: A 21st century perspective. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Original image: ‘$20,000‘ by: Johnny Vulkan