President-elect Bush likely to support character education, student prayer

Sunday, January 7, 2001

When George W. Bush takes office this month, education reform will be at the top of the agenda. Thanks to the long campaign, we already know a good
deal about what the president plans to propose concerning standards,
accountability and testing.

But we don't know much yet about his views on religion and values in
public schools — issues that rank high on the list of concerns for
millions of parents.

Candidate Bush did mention character education in speeches and
debates. Now we need to find out just how he defines it.

Favoring “character education” can mean anything from pushing
superficial “word of the week” lessons to comprehensive programs that affect
the entire school culture.

One positive sign for advocates of character education is the
appointment of Houston's superintendent of schools, Rod Paige, as secretary of
education. Houston has a highly regarded school system that takes character
education seriously.

Why should we worry about what the folks in Washington think about an
essentially local matter? Because the U.S. Department of Education now provides
seed money for character education.

Since 1995, a total of 36 states and the District of Columbia have
received more than $27 million in grants for character education pilot

Whatever else he thinks about character education, the new president
clearly doesn't think it means either inculcating or denigrating religion.
During the campaign, Bush told the Associated Press that school officials
“should never favor one religion over another, or favor religion over no
religion (or vice versa).”

That doesn't mean he thinks religion should be ignored in the
curriculum. On the contrary, he argues that “it is wrong to forcefully expunge
any mention of religion, or dilute its impact and importance, when discussing
world affairs.”

For Bush, however, including religion in the discussion shouldn't
cross the line and become religious indoctrination. “Religion is a personal,
private matter,” he says, “and parents, not public school officials, should
decide their children's religious training.”

What about the hot-button issue of school prayer? In the same AP story
Bush spoke out against “teacher-led prayer.” At the same time, he favors
“voluntary, student-led prayer.”

What does this mean? Judging from his past comments concerning Supreme
Court decisions, it appears that Bush would support student-initiated,
student-led prayers at school events – an issue still being contested in
the courts.

Bush might stir controversy on other religion-in-schools questions.
During the campaign he suggested that he would favor allowing public schools to
post the Ten Commandments on classroom walls and giving equal time to
creationism in science classes.

Since the Supreme Court has already ruled against both of these
practices, it's not clear what, if anything, the president might do to change
things. But his support might inspire new efforts to amend the First Amendment
to allow more religious expression in public schools.

Despite these potential minefields, the new administration is likely
to endorse the common ground already reached on religious expression in public

For example, the new president will likely continue promoting the
religious-liberty guidelines disseminated last year by President Clinton and
Secretary Riley. That's because the guidelines represent broad agreement on
many of the free-exercise rights of kids in schools, something Bush appears
eager to encourage. 

Will the Bush-Paige regime stir up old conflicts over religion in the
schools or will it inspire us to find more common ground? That remains to be

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