August 11, 2013; New York Times
According to the Washington Post, more than 1.5 million American children now attend charter schools. There has also been growth in the number of charter schools which find themselves housed in or associated with faith-based institutions. When these charter schools are publically funded, the challenges of the relationship between the two are heightened, and nowhere more apparent than in the State of Texas.
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Two groups watching these relationships, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have legally challenged these partnerships since the beginning of the charter school movement, as they believe they violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. According to Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United, as stated in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “charter schools are not private schools…If they are going to locate in a church, [they] cannot include any devotional activity, worship, or prayer. Religious symbols, to the largest extent possible, should be removed or covered. If there are churches that don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t enter into these agreements.”
In Texas, the legal lines outlined by Mr. Boston are watched carefully, but some of these relationships enter a grey area. A recent New York Times article said that over the past three years, 16 of the 23 charter contracts the state has awarded have gone to entities with religious ties. As the number grows, so may the potential issues. According to the article, Texas Education Agency auditors “have found inappropriate use of state money in such arrangements. Last summer, in the most recent example, it discovered that a San Antonio-based charter school superintendent had used school funds to buy a former church, then leased that building to the school she led.”
One case highlighted by the Talking Points Memo in 2012 showed Americans United’s fight against a charter school called the Truth Campus, located in suburban Dallas, that “promoted a ‘a weekly optional Chapel service’ for students. The school’s website also shared a video, now removed, featuring parents describing how the Truth Campus had taught their children ‘all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives.’ The school additionally informed students that, for 45 minutes on Mondays starting last February, students would need only to ‘bring a Bible and a notepad.’”
While there are those that cross the line, many of the charter schools that are intertwined with religious organizations are working hard to ensure that they legally comply with the state and federal rulings. As founder of one group that was highlighted—Beta Academy—Latisha Andrews stated that she does not expect having a public charter within a religious institution to be a challenge. “I don’t use a lot of Christian curriculum right now…I know full well what the law says, and I have no problem being in compliance with the law.”—John Brothers