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The Liberal Facultia?
Conservatives Bringing Education-Bias Issue Into Mainstream

By Chris Graham--Augusta Free Press--04/08/05

One girl wrote that soldiers in Iraq are "being forced to kill innocent people." A boy wrote that soldiers were "destroying holy places, like mosques."

Another wished that soldiers would come home.

"From what I see on TV and in the newspaper, I don't think the U.S. is even close to obtaining Iraqi freedom."

The letters came out of a class project assigned by a Brooklyn sixth-grade teacher earlier this year. Not long after the missives ended up in the hands of Pfc. Rob Jacobs, who is stationed in South Korea, they ignited a media firestorm that led to the teacher being reprimanded - and to parents across the country wondering what their children are being taught in school.

"The question that you have to ask with the situation in Brooklyn is when a class of students writes letters that almost all come across as having the same political message, is that coincidence, or were they directed to do what they did? It raises a red flag for me," said Ron Robinson, the president of the Herndon-based Young America's Foundation.

Red flags are being raised throughout Red State America, including the decidedly red Shenandoah Valley, where Gordon Mowen, the K-12 social-studies coordinator in the Augusta County school system, has had to wade through a number of complaints about teachers stepping over the lines from teaching and into political advocacy.

"Some of the concerns that are brought to us are done so by people who appear to perhaps have an agenda of their own that they are trying to promote. We look into every case, but you do see cases where the issues that are raised with a teacher aren't about what the teacher is doing in the classroom as much as it is that the person raising the issue has an agenda that they want to see promoted," Mowen told The Augusta Free Press.

"That said, on a couple of occasions, I have had to deal with concerns from parents about perceived political bias on the part of teachers," Mowen said. "When those incidents were brought to my attention, I reminded the teachers involved that we do need to remain unbiased in our presentations and that we must be sure to present all sides of an issue, whatever the issue might be."

The bias issue has been getting plenty of attention at the college and university level in recent years. Conservative student organizations have been leading the fight to ensure their ability to speak out in classroom settings and demand that professors address right-of-center viewpoints in their own presentations.

"It's harder to get people to talk about things going on in K-12 because it does involve minors, one, and two, parents are afraid of drawing attention to their children and risking retribution when it comes to grades," said Sara Dogan, the director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Parents and Students for Academic Freedom, an offshoot of the college- and university-focused Students for Academic Freedom.

"So this one is a tougher nut to crack, so to speak, than at the college level, where students tend to be more active, and particularly politically active, and thus are more likely to be in a position to stand up for something that they believe in when they are challenged by a professor or instructor," Dogan told the AFP.

"Partisan ideologies have no place in education at any level," said David Horowitz, the founder and chairman of Students for Academic Freedom. "Parents and Students for Academic Freedom will remind school administrators that they must treat all children with fairness and equality, and show respect for the values that their parents have chosen to teach them."

It really isn't that much of a stretch to say that educators seem to be very much in the crosshairs of the partisan political debates raging on in the culture today.

"There are plenty of opportunities for classroom discussions on political issues past and present, from the great conflicts of our past to conflicts that are ongoing in the present. The role for a teacher here is to facilitate discussions and to ensure that discussions are open to those who have differing points of view. It can be a fine line," Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle told the AFP

" The Standards of Learning program encourages these types of discussions in line with promoting the development of critical thinking skills in students," Pyle said. "There is plenty of room in courses involving civics, economics and others to share diverse viewpoints on current affairs and important historical events as well. By and large teachers understand how to facilitate these types of discussions to ensure that a variety of viewpoints are entertained and treated respectfully and that students who share a particular viewpoint don't feel marginalized as a result.

"Can I say that there haven't been incidents in the past where teachers have crossed that line into advocacy of one particular point of view? I can't. But I can say that the vast majority of teachers in Virginia classrooms are aware of their responsibilities and act accordingly," Pyle said.

On the one hand, the bias in k-12 education issue is so new that school systems are still figuring out how they can address the matter through formal training.

"We don't have a formal program that addresses this specifically," Mowen said. "We do address issues of bias whenever we have a new textbook adoption to make sure that we are all on the same page.

"Social-studies teachers as a rule understand when they get into the profession that it is their job to teach students how to think, not what to think, and to be careful about crossing the line from education to advocacy," Mowen said.

But on the other hand, today's school administrators are very well aware of the bias debate, which has been an issue in K-12 education since the politically turbulent 1960s.

"Way back when I was first getting into teaching, in the late '60s and early '70s, people were paying close attention to bias issues in the classroom. You have to remember, that was a volatile time as well. We went through a bit of an ebb in the '80s. But now we're back to what I was seeing at the beginning of my career," Mowen said.

The momentum being generated at the college level to draw a new round of attention to the topic is no doubt helping advance the cause at the K-12 level as well.

"I don't want to diminish the problem at the college level, because professors who only present one side of an argument and rigidly enforce those beliefs through classroom policies are certainly not an isolated phenomenon. People like Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who wrote that the victims of 9/11 are 'little Eichmanns,' are just the tip of the iceberg. But it's a greater danger to have teachers doing this at the elementary- and high-school levels," Robinson told the AFP.

"At the college level, students are more mature, and certainly are more intellectually mature. High-school students have access to more information than high-school students of the past through the Internet, but it's knowing what questions to ask that can be the key to intellectual curiosity at that age. And if a teacher isn't interested in presenting both sides of an argument and allowing students to decide for themselves what they should think, their intellectual curiosity can be stifled," Robinson said.

"I'm a conservative because a teacher in high school told me that William F. Buckley was a greater threat to the American way of life than Hitler," Robinson said. "That concerned me, so I picked up one of his books to see the kind of things that he had to be saying to get people to say those kinds of things about him. I read the book and realized that I agreed with him 100 percent.

"Unfortunately for the teacher, I decided to take matters into my own hands," Robinson said.

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Chris Graham is the co-publisher of The Augusta Free Press.