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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

A lesson for the secretary

The Secretary of Education's remarks heralding the value of a Christian education over the competing value systems of public schools are troubling not because Christian schools or Islamic schools or Hebrew schools or any faith-founded educational facility are deemed valuable, but because by his implication and the public's inference, public schools are not.

Roderick Paige is supposed to be the chief advocate of 50 million public school children in the country. Mr. Paige, who is also a deacon in the Baptist Church, told a church publication that he believed it important for schools to teach Christian values. “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith,” he said.

Nothing wrong with having a strong faith, but the secretary summarily discounted the value of religious diversity - the Americans United for Separation of Church and State called the comments “an astonishing mix of disrespect ...”

Mr. Paige seemed to view the diverse student body and religious backgrounds in public schools as a drawback. “In a religious environment the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values.”

The secretary is right to acknowledge that public schools teach many different kinds of kids with many different kinds of values, says the president of the American Federation of Teachers. But Sandra Feldman is surprised the secretary can't see how public education's diversity is one of its great strengths.

According to the Baptist Press article, Mr. Paige also expressed puzzlement with “the animosity to God in public school settings.” The animosity to God in public school settings - if it can be called that - comes largely in response to fundamentalists eager to impose their values and their faith on everyone else.

While it is admirable that Mr. Paige prays, starts each day with scripture lessons, and holds that his deep faith sustains him, his private beliefs should not intrude on his public responsibilities.

Educational groups, civil libertarians, and members of Congress are demanding his apology or resignation. The education secretary says he sees no reason to do either, claiming his statements should not be interpreted as endorsing the teaching of any religion's values in the nation's public schools.

Not good enough, Mr. Paige. Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York rightly says the secretary's remarks denigrated many American families whose faith and educational choices differ from his.

They are owed more than a hastily called press conference to minimize political damage. They deserve a commitment from Mr. Paige not to blur church-state boundaries again.


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