By Rick Mercurio/ Alianza North County
Editor Note: This is part two of a three part series about charter schools in Escondido. The series began with Partisan Politics Go Unchecked in Escondido’s Publicly Funded Charter Schools.
Escondido’s largest charter schools embrace—some would say, promote–Christianity, despite their status as taxpayer-funded public schools. Reported practices at Classical Academy and Dennis Snyder’s charter schools run counter to the Bill of Rights, which is a sad twist of irony, since Snyder espouses his patriotism and love for American values.
Examples of religion in those charter schools abound, though parents and students who are bothered are reluctant to speak up for fear of retribution. And of course, the vast majority of charter parents do not complain. Many send their kids to charters for that very reason: they want religion in their students’ education, but they want taxpayers to foot the bill rather than having to pay tuition at private religious schools.
Lyn Burnes was a parent of a homeschooled Escondido Classical Academy student. In a Voice of San Diego article she self identified as a Christian who was “unnerved by the public schools’ take on US history and evolution. ‘I wanted to reinforce (the charter school’s curriculum) with my own values, at home.’ Charter schools are filling that niche.”
Teaching the Bible
Part of that Classical Academy history curriculum is a 6th grade textbook called the Story of the World: History for the Classical Child. It is laced with Bible stories, presented as factual history. One chapter is entitled “The Jewish People: God Speaks to Abraham.” The book asks its readers, “Do you remember the story of Joseph?” then goes on to re-tell it. On page 104 the book reads, “The book of Exodus, in the Bible, tells us the story of what happened next,” following by a lengthy excerpt from the Book of Exodus.
The Classical Academy’s own promotional outreach describes “core curriculum adapted from the Situational Self Leadership program by The Ken Blanchard Companies, and through employees of the Blanchard Companies who are parents in our program.” The Blanchard website states, “We believe that the Bible is God’s verbally inspired, complete revelation to mankind.” Blanchard’s bestseller is entitled Lead Like Jesus.
An employee at Classical Academy estimated that 95% of the families there are extremely religious, and make no hesitation in citing that reason for choosing the school. One parent, the employee said, chose Classical Academy because she believed it would provide even more religion than St. Mary’s, Escondido’s private catholic school.
Snyder’s Own School
Also competing for Christian families are Escondido Charter High School (ECHS), the K-8 Heritage Academy, and the Digital Academy. These were founded by Snyder, former Escondido High School teacher and football coach who was fired as coach in 1987. Snyder, who despite his firing revels in his moniker of “Coach,” left the district to create “his” perfect school: strict, back-to-basics, politically conservative, and most certainly Christian. He accomplished just that. But should “his” schools be publicly funded?
One ECHS parent discovered just how blatant was Snyder’s religious and partisan advocacy when she attended a parents’ night in the fall of 2013. She wrote that Snyder made it clear that the school was a conservative Christian institution and that if anyone did not like it they could go elsewhere. She said he reasoned that since it is a school of choice he could run it any way he chooses.
An example from that same parent meeting was particularly telling. The parent wrote that Snyder urged electoral support for conservatives, pleading with parents to keep an eye on politics. He cited a new California law that allows transgender students to choose which gender restroom to use. Snyder blurted, “I don’t care what the law says, I will never allow that to happen on this campus.”
Give Snyder credit for honesty: he will not abide by any pesky law if it interferes with “his” school vision. Not even the Bill of Rights.
Snyder’s schools infuse Christianity in many ways. These examples are taken from news articles, student and parent letters, and even the ECHS website:
- When he was reminded that prayers at graduations and assemblies were in violation of the law, Snyder said he would take care of it, but pompously added, “I’m not saying we’re not going to have a prayer; it’s all in how we deliver that prayer.”
- A student wrote that besides prayers, Snyder blessed students in the name of God at assemblies. The student said he and others were chastised for wearing non-Christian religious symbols.
Students reported that the history teacher required reading Bible passages, assigned students to analyze the 10 Commandments, and denounced homosexuality.
- A student wrote that every Sept. 11, ECHS had an assembly where students were forced to pray, presided by a religious leader from a fundamentalist, evangelical church.
- The ECHS National Honor Society holds its meetings at His Coffee Co., whose goal is “spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.” NHS also used the company for fundraising.
- The ECHS Civil Air Patrol lists “chaplain” as one of its leaders.
Despite several students and parents reporting frequent prayer at school functions, Snyder was quoted in a newspaper article, saying, “I have never prayed on campus.” Really? Not even with Supervisor Bill Horn after asking him to lead a Christian prayer at a groundbreaking ceremony?
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause has set the US apart from other nations where religion often holds a tight rein on government. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed in the concept of separation of church and state embodied in the First Amendment, according to Winer and Crimm’s new book, God, Schools and Government Funding.
The authors state that questioning taxpayer aid to faith-based schools does “not reflect an anti-religious attitude. The point is not that private schools with strict doctrines and worldviews should be forbidden or that parents would not be free to choose such an education for their children. Rather, the (First Amendment’s) Free Exercise Clause protects such schools as private entities offering individual parents options at their own expense…”
In a Supreme Court case invalidating courthouse display of the Ten Commandments, Justice Sandra O’Connor prophetically wrote: “At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.”
Snyder says families must choose between embracing “his” values or not attending “his” school. In reality, Snyder has a choice: follow the law by keeping religion out of OUR (not his) taxpayer funded charter schools, or else establish a private religious school where he could legally espouse Christianity.
Rick Mercurio is a former U-T reporter, environmentalist and lead reporter for Alianza North County.