Religious Right in push for schools;Briefing;International

23rd October 1998 at 01:00

Christian conservatives are standing in elections in an attempt to gain an influence in education, reports Tim Cornwell

The November elections have brought a fresh attempt by religious conservatives to extend their influence over American school districts.

In Texas, Christian conservatives on the 15-member elected state board of education are close to a majority. And in states from California and Colorado, the religious Right or their conservative allies are campaigning for elected education jobs.

Critics say these candidates are pushing a message that runs from teaching creationism to implementing voucher systems that would allow parents to use government funds for religious schools.

The biggest teachers union, the National Education Association, recently released a report charging that the religious Right is at the heart of a conservative network mounting a "state-by-state assault on public education" as well as unions themselves.

Conservatives respond that such charges are scare-mongering, and say they are simply in the business of improving education. Donna Ballard, a preacher's wife running for the Texas board, told the New York Times recently that she and her fellow right-wingers had made sure that "discipline and phonics are not dirty words any more". There are nearly four million children in Texas state schools.

Among other initiatives, Christian conservatives have demanded the Texas state government's education fund sell $40 million (pound;25m) worth of shares in the Walt Disney Company, accused of being anti-family because it has opened its theme parks to gay events.

The religious Right has been making its presence felt in school policy since the early 1990s. But, by some accounts, fear of extremism has funnelled more support to moderates, and several of the most active and outspoken Christian conservatives have lost their seats.

But in California, a leading candidate for the schools superintendency in Riverside County, with two million people, is David Wiebe, a California Baptist College professor. He has been grilled at public meetings over comments that creationism should be taught as a theory alongside evolution.

The Republican candidate for the job of California's superintendent of public instruction, meanwhile, is Gloria Matta Tuchman, an elementary school teacher for 33 years. Ms Tuchman, who led the successful campaign to end bilingual teaching in California schools this year, supports school vouchers, but has otherwise kept to a moderate line. But Howard Ahmanson, a wealthy businessman well-known for his support for conservative Christian causes, has given $175,000 to her campaign.

Tim O'Brien, a staff member with the civil rights watchdog group People for the American Way, cited the Wiebe and Tuchman campaigns as part of an ambitious effort by the religious right to gain control of state education. "The religious right is active in California school races this year at unprecedented levels, reaching to the top of the public education school system," he said.

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