- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

A flood of federal money soon available to religious-based charities could disrupt delicate partnerships already in place between public schools and congregations, a panel of educators said yesterday.

Teachers and clergy are increasingly working together to help students, but the politics of "charitable choice" funding may disturb or "blow apart some of these conversations," Ruth Wattenberg of the American Federation of Teachers said at a Brookings Institution forum.

University of Maryland political scientist William Galston said "in principle" he supports the charitable choice agenda of giving religious groups more access to federal dollars to do welfare, family or civic renewal work.

But he said the amounts involved may give well-meaning religious groups new powers of proselytizing if the implementation is not carefully worked out.

"One billion dollars of Department of Education money alone is now being put on the table," Mr. Galston said.

Despite such concerns, the seven panelists uniformly lauded the proper and successful ways that religion in a community complements the efforts of public education.

Johns Hopkins University professor Mavis Sanders, who researched the role of black churches in Baltimore public schools, said that cooperation benefits students in academics and behavior.

Churches giving tutorials, "adopting" schools or providing equipment and volunteers but without preaching is a positive new trend in urban education, she said.

"Faith-based organizations have a very long history in the social and educational development of youth," she said.

Including the private sector in public education does not provide a "panacea" for public education, she said, for the problems there have to do mostly with student habits, teacher training and public school funding.

David Hornbeck, superintendent of Philadelphia's 262 schools from 1994 to 2000, said that during his tenure the schools drew 15,000 volunteers, mostly from churches, to adopt schools, tutor students and make streets safe for walking.

"There was a dramatic increase in achievement in schools," he said.

But he also worried that the "prophetic role" of religious groups to call for justice or challenge the government might decline when so much money is at stake.

"I think that we're going to see the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs of 2001 muted as they try to replace the $50,000 grant for after-school programs," he said.

As school-church cooperation grew, the National PTA, the National School Boards Association, school principals and Christian and Jewish legal groups endorsed a set of guidelines in 1999 titled "Public Schools and Religious Communities."

The guide emphasized the legal principle of "neutrality," in which religious buildings may be used by schools and clergy may play nonsectarian roles in schools on par with other civic leaders.

Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum, an author of the guidelines, said that while good partnerships are growing, some towns with religious majorities have dominated schools and some cities worried about lawsuits have banned all school-religion cooperation.

He agreed with Mr. Galston that as cooperative projects increase and draw more funding, "unwitting" abuses and overreaches are more are likely. But, "It's worth the risk," he said.

"Many of these partnerships are fully constitutional," Mr. Haynes said. "But you also have clergy coming in and counseling, and it is really faith formation."

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