Home Page Image


Monograph Series Volume V, Number 2

Executive Summary

To order a complete copy of the monograph, send Shannon Horn an e-mail

Issue Area One: The Current Debate in Public Education: Whose Children? Whose Schools?

Issue Area Two: The Teaching of Values in the Public Schools: Which Values? Whose Values?

Issue Area Three: School Choice: Possibility or Problem?

Issue Area Four: Separation of Church and State: What are the Legal Issues?

Issue Area Five: Consensus Building in the Community: What Generates Trust and Respect?

Issue Area Six: Changing Schools for a Changing Society: The Schools as a Positive Force

back to top

Executive Summary
Dave Else

We live in a changing world that is highly diverse in the makeup of its people. A World Village, (Table 1), demonstrates the diversity in continent representation, economics, and religion. While this diversity adds a richness to a society, it historically has often been a source of conflict. Perhaps the conflict is no more visible than in our public schools.

 Table 1. A World Village

 If 5.5 billion people were somehow proportionally concentrated into a global village of 1,000 persons, we would have:

Continent Representation:
564 Asians
210 Europeans
86 Africans
80 South Americans
60 North Americans
60 would control one half of the total income
500 would be constantly hungry
600 would live in shanty towns
700 would be illiterate
300 Christian
183 Catholics
84 Protestants
33 Orthodox
175 Muslims
128 Hindus
55 Buddhists
47 Animists
85 Other Religious Group
210 Atheists
(Joseph, 1991, p. 6)
Fear and misunderstanding all too often fuel the fires of conflict. I was adequately reminded of this when traveling to the Slovak Republic to work with school principals in democratizing their schools after the Velvet Revolution. Because they were a part of the communist regime for more than four decades, I held a perception of these former "communists" that was based on fear, deceit, and misunderstanding propagandized by politicians and the media. After working with Slovak school leaders for nearly a year and a half, I have discovered they are a caring, hard-working, loving people. We have many more similarities than differences in our hopes, dreams, and values. This discovery came about through dialogue as we gave one another the gift of being heard and understood. Consequently, fear, distrust, suspicion, and ungrounded hatred have given way to respect, admiration, collaboration, and commitment to the work we share.

A similar kind of fear and misunderstanding has gripped many of our public schools and communities across America and throughout lowa. On one side are those who are referred to as the Christian Right, considered by many to be the self appointed conscience of American society (Kaplan, 1994). In their efforts to shape their public schools, they are often seen as waging aggressive attacks-"attacks that at times seem to be designed to dismantle this nation's education system" (Jones, 1993, p. 22). On the other side of the battle lines are school officials who frequently are seen by the Christian Right as defensive, anti-Christian (even satanistic), wimps who have yielded to all of the evils of a secular world.

Since the mid 1980s, groups representing the Christian Rights-the Christian Coalition, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Focus on the Family, National Association of Christian Educators, Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, and many smaller organizations-have become "increasingly persistent and increasingly interested in turning the nation's public school system into a system of sectarian 'back to basics' schools" (Jones, 1993, p. 22). "Attacks" by these groups and strategies designed by school officials to counter the "attacks" have in some cases escalated beyond local battles to a culture war over control of our nation's public schools.

Through the debris of battle many challenges emerge for schools and communities. How can we develop an understanding of the challenge some religious groups feel to live in a secular society while answering to the higher authority of their beliefs (Hitz & Butterfield, 1994)? How do schools balance respect for the individual parent's beliefs with respect for all people's beliefs (Fege, 1994)? How much control do parents have over what their children are taught? How do we build trust and understanding in the school community? How do educators communicate to all citizens without alienating people who align with groups holding diverse viewpoints?

The challenges confronting public education are not going to go away. Nor are citizens who hold diverse beliefs about and expectations for their public schools. And educators cannot operate closed systems that are unresponsive to the community they serve.

We must be open to learning about and working with people who see the world and life differently than we do if we are to provide a quality education to our young people. "It is the involvement with the needs of others that provides the cement that binds people together in community" (Joseph, 1991, p. 7). If we are to bring the diversity of our local communities state, and nation together in a team learning environment where people support one another, we must create a climate in which they know and understand one another-the gift of being heard and understood. Given the time, it is possible to find common grounds for cooperation. As Molnar (1994) noted, "We can find considerable common ground if we learn to respect each other and are willing to acknowledge that, even when we disagree, our respective views are shaped by an abiding respect for public education and concern for the welfare of our young"(p. 5).

Unless school officials intend to declare all out war on segments of their communities and play power politics to protect their domain, they must ensure that their decision making processes are open and that they protect the rights of both the most vocal and the most silent in their communities (Boston, 1994). And if those representing the Christian Right truly want to shape their schools through academic excellence (Simonds, 1994) rather than destroy them, then we must develop out of our differences a shared understanding of the role of religion and values in public schools (Haynes, 1994).

In an effort to assist schools and communities in developing greater understanding of divergent views about the role of religion and values in Iowa's public schools, the Institute for Educational Leadership hosted a working conference designed to initiate dialogue among diverse groups. Sixty elementary and secondary teachers and administrators, college/university faculty members, State Department of Education and intermediate agency consultants, board of education members, professional association representatives, and community leaders and citizens representing separationist and anti-separationist views were invited to the University of Northern Iowa campus. Individuals were selected based upon their keen interest in the role of religion and values in public schools, their skills as communicators, and their enthusiasm for exploring issues in the interactive environment characteristic of the working conference format. Each participant selected 1 of 6 areas for indepth dialogue:

  • The Current Debate in Public Education: Whose Children? Whose Schools?
  • The Teaching of Values in the Public Schools: Which Values? Whose Values?
  • School Choice: Possibility or Problem?
  • Separation of Church and State: What are the Legal Issues?
  • Consensus Building in the Community: What Generates Trust and Respect?
  • Changing Schools for a Changing Society: The Schools as a Positive Force.
Each participant prioritized issue areas and was invited to write a position paper on the issue of greatest interest. Papers were submitted prior to the conference, copied, and sent to participants in the same issue area. This monograph is a compilation of the position papers in each issue area as well as the consensus reports developed by the six groups during the three day conference and written by each group's facilitator(s). Because time prevented development of a conference report, these papers represent the views of the participants within each issue area and are not necessarily shared by all conference participants.

As planners for the working conference identified critical issues imbedded in divergent views on the control of schools, many skeptics in the university community and in schools and communities across lowa began to emerge. Some even posited that bringing people with strongly held divergent views together would be highly volatile and laiden with risk. To the knowledge of the planning team, conference participants, and many people throughout the nation who have wrestled with this issue, such a conference had never been attempted.

Like participants involved in the conference, you will make several discoveries as you read this monograph. The participants discovered that when provided an interactive environment, people are comfortable suspending judgment in order to help each other become aware of the contradictions and confusions in each other's thoughts. Through dialogue people can go beyond any one individual's understanding by exploring issues from many points of view. Considerably more similarities in our beliefs exist than there are differences. Misinformation, which in many cases has caused misunderstanding, suspicion, and distrust, can be overcome with education. Gradual progress in the larger debate concerning the control of public schools is attainable when views from all sides are respected and addressed. Democratic processes demonstrate "genius not so much by satisfying all parties as by minimizing their dissatisfaction." And they discovered people can often live very well with a situation where they can make their case and yet another view is implemented so long as the learning process is open and everyone acts with integrity.

While some issues remain unresolved, a climate of respect, openness, integrity, inquiry, and willingness to confront in a positive sense has been created. It is this climate, perhaps more than anything else, that gives us as people with diverse views the best hope of building a richness out of our diversity that shapes and nurtures public education.

It is my belief, so clearly stated by M. J. Dolan, that "this monograph will remain a living document because of the work of conference participants" (personal communication). Perhaps parts of it will live in your school and community as issues are addressed and resolutions are forged. Through greater understanding of differences we can develop in our schools and communities better working relations and greater sensitivity to all citizens for the common good of education.

Resource List
  • Boston, J. (1994). In search of common ground. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 38-40.
  •  Fege, A. (1994). A tug of war over tolerance. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 22-23.
  •  Haynes, C. (1994). Beyond the culture wars. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 30-34.
  •  Hitz, R., & Butterfield, P. (1994). When church meets state. The American School Board Journal, 181(1), 43-44.
  •  Jones, J. (1993). Targets of the right. The American School Board Journal, 180(4), 22-29.
  •  Joseph, J. (1991, Winter). Leadership for America's third century: The imperatives of a civil society. Phi Kappa Phi, pp. 5-7.
  •  Kaplan, G. (1994, May). Shotgun wedding: Notes on public education's encounter with the new Christian Right. Phi Delta Kappan, 75, K1-K12.
  • Molnar, A. (1994). Fundamental differences. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 4-5.
  •  Simonds, R. (1994). A plea for the children. Educational Leadership, 51(4), 12-15.

back to top