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Failing Grades By: Alan W. Dowd
American Legion Magazine | Thursday, October 11, 2007


Once upon a time, schools emphasized the “three Rs”—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. But recently a “fourth R” seems to have entered the schoolhouse—radicalism. And teachers are increasingly the source of the radical ideas being peddled in America’s schools.

Hearing Is Believing

“When you go into a class where you’re supposed to learn about government or geography,” as high-school junior Sean Allen puts it, “you expect to learn what the truth is.” But as Sean learned in 2006, some teachers don’t teach the truth.

When Sean signed up for “Accelerated World Geography” at Overland High School in suburban Denver, he probably didn’t expect diatribes against the United States, capitalism or President George W. Bush. Nor did he expect to be thrust into the middle of a national debate over the limits of academic freedom. But that’s exactly what happened.

“Sean had told me the teacher was pretty radical,” his father, Jeff Allen, recalls.

How radical? Sean’s teacher, Jay Bennish, used a geography class to declare capitalism “an economic system at odds with humanity.” He called the United States “the most violent nation on earth.” He said Bush’s 2006 State of the Union “sounds a lot like the things that Adolf Hitler used to say.”

Remember, this is a geography class—for tenth-graders.

Sean’s dad couldn’t believe what his son was reporting. But in this case, hearing is believing. Sean had started recording lectures to help in note-taking. When he played Bennish’s rant for his father, the elder Allen called the principal to let her know what was going on in the classroom.

Almost a week later, still awaiting a response from the principal, Allen sent syndicated columnist Walter Williams an email detailing the situation. “I didn’t think unless I had the backing of someone like a Walter Williams that the school would take any action,” Allen says.

Williams wrote a column on the brewing controversy. Then, a local radio station aired the recording and interviewed Sean, as did Fox News Channel.

Along the way, Bennish was suspended but ultimately reinstated. “The intent was not to bust the teacher,” Allen explains. “The intent was to get the teacher to teach what he was hired to teach. Kids look up to teachers, they respect teachers.”

Sean says 90 percent of the student body supported him, but he did receive threats and enrolled in another school. He also received hundreds of supportive emails from all across the country—and even from troops in Iraq.

“Sean has gotten a lot of support from our troops,” according to his father. “One soldier even sent him a flag and a letter of appreciation. That makes it all worth it.”

Sean, who later returned to Overland High School, hopes his ordeal shows parents and students that the biased brand of education we have come to expect at America’s universities is seeping down to the high-school level. “It’s a huge problem in high school,” according to Sean. “By the time you’re in college, you’re sort of numb to it or you just go along with it.”

David Horowitz agrees. “The kids are already brainwashed by the time they get to college,” according to Horowitz, who was one of the founders of the so-called New Left that helped radicalize college campuses in the 1960s. He is now one of the most ardent critics of the far left, launching a family of organizations that promote academic freedom and serve as watchdogs against political indoctrination in the classroom. One of those organizations is Parents and Students for Academic Freedom (PSAF).

“It is much, much worse at the K-12 level because the kids are so young,” he argues. “It’s unbelievable what they are being allowed to do at K-12 schools.”

He points to the Bennish case and to what he observed firsthand at Pacific Palisades High School in 2005. Working with antiwar groups, the school’s English department planned what Horowitz calls “an indoctrination session for 14- to 18-year-olds.” Those attending the program, which took place during school hours, were treated to antiwar propaganda and anti-American vitriol: Iraq was “a war for oil;” the war on terror was caused by “America’s support for Israel;” U.S. troops have killed 100,000 innocent Iraqis.

But thanks to a mistake by the organizers, Horowitz was also in attendance. He provided balance—and facts—to the program. He also listened to students who reported that some teachers intimidated them, harangued them and kicked them out of class when they dared mention Saddam Hussein’s brutal record.

Those who dismiss episodes like this as isolated cases “are completely wrong,” according to Horowitz. He cites the trend within schools of education—the places that teach teachers—to promote the “social justice movement,” which in his view is “a movement to indoctrinate students in our K-12 schools.”

As evidence, PSAF has put together a survey of the most prominent texts used in schools of education. One openly concludes that teachers “cannot hide behind notions of neutrality or objectivity.” Another, geared to grade-school mathematics teachers, includes a lesson plan condemning U.S. military action against the medieval Taliban.[1]

A Bill Too Far?

PSAF is helping parents and policymakers expose and reverse such “politicization in the American school system” by promoting a Student Bill of Rights.

The Arizona legislature, for example, has considered a controversial bill to protect students and prohibit “any instructor in a public K-12 or postsecondary institution while in the instructor’s official capacity from endorsing, supporting or opposing any political candidate or office, legislation, litigation or court action or advocating one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.” The bill’s proposed penalties include revocation of teaching certification and up to a $500 fine.[2]

However, sometimes even the best-intentioned remedies go too far. Horowitz opposes the bill’s college-related elements. “I have never advocated legislation that would monitor or restrict what university instructors say in their classrooms,” he recently wrote. But he supports the K-12 elements.

The distinction makes sense. Most K-12 students, as Sara Dogan of PSAF observes, “don’t have the maturity of college students to protest what is happening or even to tell their parents.”

Indeed, children are the very definition of impressionable. That’s one reason why so many people choose education as a vocation, and thank goodness they do. It’s a hard, often thankless job that literally cultivates our most precious resource. But as Dogan explains, “Many teachers take advantage of their positions of authority. Their role is to educate, not indoctrinate.”

Arizona lawmakers aren’t the only ones wading into controversial education issues. In early 2007, New Jersey lawmakers passed a measure that would have allowed schools to stop observing and/or teaching about Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Veterans groups called on Gov. Jon Corzine to veto the bill, which he did.[3]

“Given the past sacrifices of our veterans and the sacrifices now being made by those serving in the Armed Forces, especially the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in service to their country,” Corzine concluded in his veto message, “it is imperative that New Jersey school children be reminded of those valiant men and women who have demonstrated their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”[4]

The Common Good

But it would appear that teachers and administrators are the ones who need to be reminded about patriotism, sacrifice and service.

· One former teacher reports that many public schools in Los Angeles have given up on the Pledge of Allegiance. “Teachers openly opposed reciting the Pledge,” according to Ari Kaufman, who taught in Los Angeles public schools from 2001-2005. “I even recall elementary-school teachers having kids make ‘No War in Iraq’ posters.” Kaufman ultimately lost the energy to keep teaching. “I got along with the parents and loved the kids. But the radicalized teachers and teachers unions disenchanted me.”

· In San Francisco, the board of education voted to end the Junior ROTC program in late 2006. Even though the program is completely voluntary, promotes community service, and keeps some 1,600 kids off the streets, it will be phased out next year.[5]

· Likewise, the JROTC program at L.A.’s Roosevelt High is under assault from an alliance of students and agenda-minded teachers, contributing to a 43-percent drop in the number of cadets. The Los Angeles Times reports that some teachers are openly hostile toward JROTC. In one incident, a teacher mocked a uniformed cadet and asked him, “Are you going to Iraq to die?”[6]

· The board of the San Mateo Union High School District in California is mulling ways to limit military recruiter access to students. The Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin has already done so.[7] The Garfield High School PTA in Seattle started the anti-recruiting trend in 2005, when it declared that “public schools are not a place for military recruiters.”[8] But the law says otherwise. The No Child Left Behind Act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support in 2002, directs high-school administrators to “provide military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided…to post-secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers.”

· Teachers at Frank Allis Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, gave their third-graders an assignment to write antiwar letters to the President, Members of Congress, and other students. The principal ordered the teachers to cancel the assignment, noting that it was a violation of district policies.[9]

· At La Escuela Fratney, a bilingual public school in Milwaukee, fifth-grade teacher Bob Peterson has touted the benefits of leading his students in “The Pledge of Resistance” and using antiwar folk songs in the classroom. “Wake up!” yelps one song. “The children are dying, the children of Iraq!” Among the other titles he recommends are “Bombs over Baghdad,” “The Price of Oil,” and “Bomb Da World.”[10] It pays to recall that he “teaches” ten-year-olds.

Standing Up

Teachers aren’t the only ones guilty of pushing agendas in the classroom, however. Consider what happened this year at Tucson Accelerated High School, a public charter school where the student council voted to end the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

In response, junior Sam Lucero and his younger brother, Robert, led a protest against the student council’s decision. “We took flags to school and sang the National Anthem and said the Pledge of Allegiance,” Sam explains. “Most of the kids said it was a waste of time. But I’m an American, and there are people fighting for that flag. The least we can do is stand up and say the Pledge.”

Sam knows all too well that Americans are fighting and dying for our flag. Two of his siblings are deployed in Iraq. And his oldest brother, Lance Cpl. Joshua Lucero, was killed in 2004 while serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. “He didn’t die for nothing,” Sam says of his fallen brother. “He fought for the flag. It symbolizes hope and freedom.”

Sam plans to follow in his brother’s footsteps and enlist in the Marines after graduation. “I want to fight for our country,” he says with pride.

Of course, he already has fought for the flag. Thanks to Sam’s actions, the student council’s misguided decision drew public attention and was quickly reversed. Lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund reminded the school that “prohibiting the recitation of the Pledge violates both Arizona statutory law and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Most teachers appreciate and respect the great responsibility with which they are entrusted. But sadly, some abuse their position of trust.

As these agenda-minded educators gain a foothold in America’s schools, there is obviously cause for concern. But young people like Sam Lucero and Sean Allen remind us that there is also reason for hope.

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

ENDNOTES:

[1]
Sol Stern, “Teaching social justice in the K-12 schools,” www.psaf.org, July 31, 2006.

[2] Arizona State Senate, Fact Sheet for SB 1612, www.azleg.gov, accessed on February 13, 2007.

[3] Tom Hester, “NJ veterans angry over education bill,” The Evening Sun, January 12, 2007.

[4] Office of the Governor, “Governor Corzine Vetoes Legislation,” www.state.nj.us, January 26, 2007.

[5] Jill Tucker, “school board votes to dump JROTC program,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 2006; Heather Knight, “Board has plan to oust ROTC from S.F. schools,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 2006.

[6] Sonia Nazario, “Junior ROTC takes a hit in LA,” Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2007.

[7] Jason Goldman-Hall, “School district tables decision on military recruiters,” Washington Examiner, January 19, 2007.

[8] Dean Patton, “Rift over recruiting at public high schools,” Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 2005.

[9] Bob Purvis, “Principal rejects antiwar assignment,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 22, 2005.

[10] See Bob Peterson, “Music can be a powerful opening to students of all ages,” Rethinking Schools Online, Spring 2003.


Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.


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