Friday :: Sep 30, 2005

Q&A with Stevens Creek Elementary School (CA) parents - Part IV

by eriposte

This is the FINAL part of a multi-part Q&A with three parents who belong to the group We The Parents (WTP) who were instrumental in fighting back the Far Right Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) and their frivolous lawsuit against their childrens' school. The background on the lawsuit in question is here, Part I of the Q&A is here, Part II is here and Part III is here. In this final part, the parents offer their views on attacks on public schools, religion, etc. -- and advice (and help) for parents across the country on how to deal with malicious attacks on public schools.

As stated in the previous parts, please note that:
(a) All the views offered by these parents are their own personal views and DO NOT represent the views of the We The Parents organization.
(b) The responses by the parents were sent independently of each other (i.e., I present their responses clubbed together for convenience, but they were not submitted at the same time).
(c) The responses are reproduced as-is except for minor edits for punctuation/typos/URLs. Alongside some of the responses, I have added my own commentary (enclosed in [...]).
(d) I have rearranged the order of some questions because I had to break up the Q&A into multiple parts (owing to length considerations) and I wanted to keep related questions close to each other. This does not affect the parents responses in any way since the responses are independent of the ordering of the questions.

Q&A - Part IV

Q12 [Eriposte at The Left Coaster (TLC)]: Do you believe that this lawsuit and the false charges that permeated the media from the ADF and their allies, are part of a broader pattern in recent times of the so-called "Christian" Right in this country using their friendly media access to push their agenda and inaccurate claims (e.g., the Terri Schiavo issue, stem cells, etc.)? If yes, what are your thoughts on how this should be addressed?

Dick Crouch: Yes. See below.

John Bartas: When I started looking into the ADF, it became clear they were part of a much larger agenda. Their close relationship with Dobson's group and FOX, their huge financial resources, and their easy access to the media belied the idea that they were some kind of grassroots organization.
The phenomenon seems quite widespread. Terry Schiavo is a good case in point. Look at all the press the "Christian" Right brought to bear, and the numbers of politicians who dropped everything (ignoring the jobs they were elected to do) to jump into this religious issue. Many millions of dollars were poured into publicizing what should have been a private family matter. This is obviously a huge, well organized and well funded effort.

Nathalie Schuler: I can't answer for the group here. I personally believe it was part of the same agenda. How it should be addressed? We all have a responsibility to defend what we think is right, and we should all find ways of doing it according to our talents and inclinations.
I can tell you that this case sparked some interesting turns of affairs in Cupertino and the surrounding areas! I know a mom from school who just started the Cupertino chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. One of our supporters who used to live in Sunnyvale, has sold his house, moved near Sacramento and is running for State Assembly next year. The ADF supporter no longer supports them and we have a very good relationship based on mutual respect. And I have decided to go to Law School next year and I'm applying to Stanford and Santa Clara this month.

[Eriposte comments: It is interesting how deeply and significantly this lawsuit impacted some (perhaps most) of the parents - to the extent that some of them took major steps in their own life as a result of the experience. This is exactly this kind of energy that needs to be tapped to reform Government and the media. We need independent citizens who are willing to stand up to lies and corruption - regardless of the source of it - and change the country for the better.]

TLC, Q13: Do you believe that this lawsuit and the false charges that permeated the media from the ADF and their allies, are part of a broader pattern of attacks on "secular" public schools in this country by the so-called "Christian" Right? If yes, what are your thoughts on how this should be addressed?

Crouch: Quote from Mike Johnson of the ADF (Baptist Press News 12/20/04), "The school ground is the battleground now in the culture war when it comes to religious expression. Teachers are in the crosshairs." It's part of a pattern. Just try setting up a Google news alert on the "Alliance Defense Fund", and you'll begin to see, especially around Christmas time. Last year, at roughly the same time as the Stevens Creek affair, the ADF were promoting stories about how a public school had banned Christmas colors like red and green. Just like banning the Declaration of Independence, this would be outrageous if true; but why would anyone in their right mind assume it was true?
Note that the attack is on two fronts: (i) that the schools are secular, and (ii) that the schools are public. I'm not sure how actively the ADF pursues the second line of attack, but its press releases certainly provide ammunition for those on the extreme right who would like to put an end to public education. It is this fusing of "Religious" and "Right" that needs to be addressed.
Two obvious facts. First, religion is not inherently right-wing or left wing. There are plenty of liberal Christians to match conservative Christians (not to mention conservatives who are not Christian). Second, to be secular is not to be anti-religious. The standard meaning of secular is simply not to give any religion a legally privileged position amongst alternative systems of values and beliefs. There are many secular Christians who are quite willing to let their deeply held beliefs stand on their own in such a 'free market place of ideas.' This is also the sense in which public education in this country is secular.
The ADF seem to view a secular attempt to give religion fair, neutral treatment as in fact being opposed to religion (if you don't favor it, then you must be against it). You often see something like the following line of reasoning: (1) public education is secular [true], (2) public education is mandated by Federal Government [true], (3) to be secular is to be anti-religious [false], (4) therefore Federal Government is anti-religious [false, but follows from 1--3], (5) if you support religion, you should therefore support more limited federal government [false, but follows from 4], (6) since limited government is a classical right-wing position, if you are a consistent Christian, you should be a conservative [false, but follows from 5].
One of the things that I think needs to happen is to preserve secularism and the separation of church and state as a publicly acceptable position for committed Christians, something that the ADF are determined to undermine. The religious need to remind themselves that in secular public schools like Stevens Creek, God and religion are often mentioned without anyone reaching for whatever is the atheist equivalent of a crucifix. Likewise, the non-religious need to remind themselves that allowing more religion in school does not inevitably lead to a theocracy --- take the UK, where if anything prayer in school diminishes widespread religious practice. There is a broad, secular middle ground where people from many viewpoints can coexist. But the center will not hold if the passionate intensity of culture war splits secularism into a wedge issue, as it looks set to do.

Bartas: Another item I found when I started looking into the ADF is that most of their lawsuits were against public schools, and in fact several of their founders are on record as opposing public schooling in America. There's also an organized "Christian Nation" movement which is seeking to convert America into a nation run entirely by religious principles as defined by their leaders. As I've mentioned before, these principles don't strike me as Christian at all - we'd end up like Iran under the Ayatollahs, or Spain during the Inquisition.
Jesus said "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." [More on this here and here - Eriposte] I can't imagine a clearer injunction for Christians to keep their religion out of politics. The original separation of Church and State message! But these days I keep seeing the message reversed: give your money to the church and inject your religion into government.
A conservative Christian friend of mine asserted the other day that America's public schools are "a failed system". I disagreed. I'm no Shakespeare, but I learned to read and write in a public school. So did he. Our schools may spend more to get poorer test scores than Japan or England, but those countries don't have the numbers of immigrants and variety of languages our schools have to deal with. The parents there are often more involved with education, and the cultures value scholarship more than much of the US does. Our schools are not perfect, but I think it's obvious we should be working to improve them, not destroy them.

Schuler: Again, I personally think so and an ADF spokesman seemed to confirm in November that they are targeting schools. We have a responsibility to speak out and support the side we believe will maintain the way of life we have enjoyed for so many years and the way of life protected in the Constitution. If we start to take things for granted, the path to destruction and deterioration of our Democratic Values is very close.
I come from a country that was a showcase of Democracy in Latin America for over 30 years. It wasn't perfect, but neither is any country. It was pretty good! And within a couple of years and with a good demagogue in power who could speak populist gobbledygook we are now at the throes of communism and repression like we've never seen it before, elections are rigged outright, and no one seems to be able to do anything about it. An oil industry that was once a paragon of safety now has incredible human and environmental accidents, and the country is being run aground by nincompoops. I can see how that can easily happen anywhere.
Peace, prosperity, progress and tolerance can only advance in a country where both sides are in balance. If the right or the left move an inch to their advantage, we have chaos and a country out of control to one side or the other. The trick is staying in that middle of balance. I would like to see this country go back to that. I believe we're not in balance any more.

[Eriposte comments: Since we are on the topic of public schools, I want to take this opportunity to highlight a truly excellent report by Dave Johnson (Seeing The Forest) and Leonard Salle at the non-profit Commonweal Institute titled "Responding to the Attack on Public Education and Teacher Unions". This a report that all educators, students, teachers, parents, etc. should read. As they point out in their introduction:

...The fact is that, until the late1970s, our public school system enjoyed the admiration and respect of the American public. It was considered one of the essential institutions of our society. Although still well regarded by much of the public, this previous high level of public esteem has gradually eroded. There is now significant concern about, as well as opposition to, public education. So what happened?

Opposition to public education has occurred as a result of a broader ideologically and politically motivated assault, by what we will term here as the “Right” on “liberal” institutions and policies. This assault is not generally recognized by the public or even many educators. Its major targets include the national media, college professors, organized labor, the regulation of business, progressive taxation - and public education... These attacks have greatly influenced how the American public thinks about institutions and policies that had long been considered as the bedrock of our country. In particular, the Right has systematically worked, for more than two decades, to undermine the public’s confidence and respect for public education.

Initially promoted as providing “choice,” the Right is becoming less covert about their real goal – privatizing schools and eliminating as much of the public education system as possible. This should not be very surprising, given that the “school choice” campaign is actually part of a broader ideological movement intent on shifting a whole array of government functions – from the military to Social Security – to the private sphere...

Living as we are in the Bush/Schwarzenegger era, it is important to remember the reasons why many in the Far Right have a hostility towards public schools. Let's start with some historical perspective first:

The Wisconsin Education Association's 1998 report, Anatomy of a Movement includes a good summary of the history and strategy of attacks on public education:

“School vouchers, originally proposed in 1955 by the conservative economist Milton Freeman as a way for whites to use their economic power to avoid desegregation in the South, became, in the mid-1980s, a cause celebre for the resurgent conservative right. By funding everything from academic studies to hatchet jobs and litigation, the school choice “movement” has been extremely successful in its two-pronged strategy of (1) denigrating the current educational system, and (2) creating a working model of the proposed alternative voucher system. This strategy was realized in well orchestrated stages.

[…] “First, public schools had to be discredited. If they were not broken there would be no impetus to create alternative systems of schooling. The Bradley Foundation has funded many critiques, especially in higher education, that helped fuel today’s rampant criticism of education.

“That schools are failing is now taken for granted by many, including many in the educational community. School administrators, teachers’ unions, the media, and politicians all compete to raise standards, toughen tests, and to improve an allegedly shoddy teaching corps. Any politician or educator who fails to call for higher standards risks political ridicule. Of course, improvements in education can be made. But the first stage of the broad strategy has succeeded, and a strong consensus views the schools as failing despite the fact that much empirical evidence shows public schools are doing well and improving. ”

The whole thing, as Mr. Bartas has also observed, is part of a massively funded and orchestrated operation of deception and often sham "research" by "conservative think-tanks". The Johnson/Salle report briefly talks about some of the top funders of the wealthy Far Right movement in the country aimed at discrediting public schools and other public institutions (separate from the so-called "religious" Right groups like ADF which have their own massive war chest to attack schools from a fake "religious" angle):

These foundations are associated with the extreme right of the political spectrum. The Bradley Foundation's money comes from Lynde Bradley, a member of the John Birch Society. [49] The Coors Foundation previously financed the John Birch Society. [50] The Koch Foundations were founded by Charles and David Koch, sons of Fred Koch, co-founder of the John Birch Society. David Koch, the 1980 Libertarian Party Vice Presidential candidate, funds many libertarian organizations, and is co-founder of the libertarian Cato Institute. [51] William Simon of the Olin Foundation was a member of the secretive Christian-Right Council for National Policy, and chairman of an organization set up by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church . [52] Richard Mellon Scaife and his foundations were the primary funders of the anti-Clinton efforts of the 1990s, which included funding the vitriolic magazine, American Spectator. [53] As for today’s John Birch Society, it is currently engaged in a “Get US Out!” (of the UN) campaign, a philosophy reflected across the right-wing movement. [54]

The Right Today

There are now over 500 organizations, of which Heritage Foundation is the most influential, all receiving funding from this core group. A 1999 study, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s, [55] shows how well-funded these organizations are. The study found that the top 20 of these organizations spent over $1 billion on their ideological campaign in the 1990s, not only on school privatization, but on a number of other issues they are advancing.

The more recent 2004 NRCP study, Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy, revealed that “from 1999 through 2001, the 79 conservative foundations made more than $252 million in grants to nonprofit public policy organizations. (NCRP’s 1997 study profiled only 12 conservative foundation grantmakers.)” [56]

(Of course there is nothing remotely comparable on the Left in this country). There are multiple reasons why the Far Right (and the powers-that-be on the Right) find it useful to attack public institutions, like public schools. As the Johnson/Salle report points out in Section 1:

The Right’s attack on public education is aimed not only at the public schools but at a broader range of progressive values and policies. It must be understood as a part of a multi-front ideological campaign that the Right has pursued very aggressively, and so far quite successfully, against the idea that government should be in the business of helping people. That campaign is well-funded, well-orchestrated, and unrelenting.
In addition to the ideological attack on public schools, the Right has an additional purpose. As radical as the idea of privatizing public schools may seem, the right-wing movement has an even broader agenda in this school privatization drive, namely “defunding the Left” by defunding teacher unions. By privatizing public schools, and destroying teacher unions, the Right hopes to eliminate teacher unions as a source of support to the Right’s political opposition. This goal is part of a broader effort to destroy other supporters of the Right’s political opposition, including trial lawyers and organized labor.
Beyond the agenda of defunding supporters of moderate and progressive causes, the Right hopes to use school privatization to appeal politically to certain mostly-Democratic voting constituencies, such as Catholics, African Americans and Latinos. In an interview, Grover Norquist admits, “School choice reaches right into the heart of the Democratic coalition and takes people out of it. It divides the left because the teachers' unions are on one side and all the parents of poor children are on the other…”

(In times like these, it is therefore wonderful to see nurses, teachers, police, firefighters, etc. all fighting back against the more general assault on important public institutions in California by the current Governor).

NOTE: I tend to partly agree with Ms. Schuler that "Peace, prosperity, progress and tolerance can only advance in a country where both sides are in balance." The key point is defining the "sides". It is important to have a balance between the moderate Left and the moderate Right. There has not been a moderate Right in Congress for about a decade now. We have had mostly a Far Right-led Congress with fake moderates who say a few nice words in TV interviews and who refuse - in their actions - to hold the extremists in their party accountable for almost anything. The extremism is further stoked by passive or deliberate collusion by the conservative-tilted mainstream media which refuses to hold the Far Right extremists accountable; instead, sadly, they often play the role of happy propaganda organs for the extremists, enough to make Joseph Stalin proud. This is of course not an accident, but I'll leave that for another day.]

TLC, Q14: Would you be willing to use the credibility that WTP built (as a non-partisan advocacy group for parents, children and your school) to help parents in other schools in the country that may likewise be the (unjustifiable) target of groups like ADF and their allies in the media?

Crouch: Yes, but it would be hard to remain non-partisan. WTP was non-partisan largely because people from a wide variety of highly partisan view-points rallied around a common attack on their school. It seems probable that anyone from WTP who went on to help other schools would do so from a position of recognizing the wider picture of the Religious Right attacking public education. Or at any rate, that's the basis on which I would do it, and it is hardly non-partisan.

Bartas: I'd be willing to help any public school (or school parents group) who feel their school is being attacked by any extremist group. People should not be playing politics with America's kids.
Us "Soccer Moms" and Dads learned a lot about how to counter this kind of media hit job. I wish we'd known more last November! I'll leave the website up for at least year or two, and make sure anyone who needs help can contact us via the web site.

Schuler: We have often discussed that in our group and I think we're pretty convinced that we would all like to do that. In fact, we have tried to reach out already to the local PTAs and were invited to speak to the Monta Vista High School PTA. We would be happy to help anyone who thinks they are being targeted and even those who don't think this could ever happen to them.
A spokesperson for ADF said last November that they see schools as the new battleground. They took us by surprise and it took us a month to organize a response. That shouldn't happen again. We are available to help any groups plan for that eventuality. The quicker the response, the less ground they win. Do contact us for that.

[Eriposte comments: I definitely applaud these parents' offer to help other schools across the country. If there are any teachers or parents in other public schools in the country who are facing malicious lawsuits/publicity and/or attacks by organized special interest groups or the media, and you would like some help/advice from WTP, send me an email and I can put you in touch with them. Even otherwise, it may be a good idea for schools to invite WTP members over to give a talk. I do hope people take them up on their offer because they have some excellent advice to offer.]

TLC, Q15: Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share with readers?

Crouch: If it can happen to our school, it can happen anywhere. And if it happens to you, it will happen quickly. The ADF evidently put some time and effort into orchestrating their media campaign before the lawsuit was made public. But the school was given no time to respond. There needs to be someone outside of the official school/PTA hierarchy who can rapidly contact parents and alert them to what is going on. Just letting the parents know what is happening is vital -- at Stevens Creek it was probably two weeks before the majority of parents were even aware of what was going on. And the parents will probably have a pretty good idea of whether the media attention is justified or not.

Bartas: Yes! If your school (or any organization you value) is getting bad press, don't sit back and do nothing. Sure it will eventually blow over, but your group will be damaged when it does. The American people are fair once they know the facts - all the threats and hate messages to the school stopped once we got the word out. I know at least a few folks stopped donating to the ADF because of this. Speak out! Post to blogs, write letters to the editor, call your local politicians and demand they help. Sally Leiber and Mike Honda's office were very helpful once they heard the truth, and the MSM turned around completely. If you have a phone or email you can fight back. You're only helpless if you don't even try.

Schuler: Just to thank all of you for your support throughout this ordeal. It feels lonely when you take a risk like we did in going against a lawyer group with a $16 million budget, but we took heart in knowing that we were indeed not alone in this fight.
Keep the discussions going, keep the critical thinking going on both sides (we all love this country and just disagree on how to get things done), keep active in your communities and question actions regardless of where they come from, and if you're not active, get active even if it's just talking to your kids or to your friends: your opinions influence a lot of people, and don't ever be afraid of taking a stand if it's grounded on good principles. Keep the balance.
Thanks for this opportunity.

[Eriposte comments: All around excellent advice from three American patriots - parents who helped fight a Goliath and won! I hope all progressives and parents around the country are listening.]

Thank you very much!
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