For many anti-public education activists, maybe, as the saying goes, “nothing succeeds like failure.” Extremist agendas are usually more about undermining, or even dismantling, the institution they want to “reform.” Journalist Katherine Stewart sees such a dynamic at work with the Religious Right and its aggressive and increasingly successful campaign to install so-called “Good News Clubs” in schools across America. In a nation as diverse as ours, a plan to transform public schools into fundamentalist boot camps is bound to ultimately fail. But, says Stewart, much can be accomplished along the way to chip away at the institution and exhaust and frustrate its supporters.
Stewart’s book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” investigates a specific brand of after-school bible study programs (called “Good News Clubs”) that have proliferated across the country. Her interest was piqued a few years ago when her own daughter’s elementary school opened its doors to such a club. Initially, Stewart thought the program sounded harmless enough – it billed itself as mainstream and non-denominational – but what she would soon find out about the clubs and the agenda of the well-funded organization behind them disturbed her. In her book, Stewart, in addition to examining the ramifications for the separation of church and state, lays out in great detail how these clubs use deception to attract families, how they divide communities and generally run counter to everything a public school is suppose to stand for. And as Stewart recently told NEA Today, it’s easy to draw a straight line between Good News Clubs and the political networks intent on dismantling public education.
A lot of people might hear about Good News Clubs and ask, “What’s the big deal?” How are they wrong?
I believe the Bible is worth teaching from a non-sectarian standpoint, and I believe in the free exercise of religion. The problem is that Good News Clubs, which are run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), advertise themselves as a mainstream after-school program but they’re far from that. It pretends to offer “Bible study,” when really it’s about indoctrinating kids in a fundamentalist form of religion. They are told they must go to the “right” kind of church. They are taught that if they fail to believe or obey the tenets of this particular form of the Christian religion, they will go to hell. This is all in the curriculum. And they use deceptive tactics to attract and recruit young students and encourage them to recruit their classmates. At every Good News Club training I attended, children were offered points and prizes and sometimes even candy for recruiting their peers.
How prevalent are Good News Clubs?
There are about 3500 Good News Clubs in public schools – most of them elementary. They focus on kids in their first years of public schooling because for most kids at that age, no institution has as much authority as the public school. If it’s taught on school grounds, it then must be true. I have seen several instances, including at my daughter’s elementary school, where the Good News Clubs were offered a better space at a church immediately next door to the school, and they declined. They want to be in the school because they know that kids will think their club is endorsed by the school.
Describe how the clubs’ activities infiltrate the school?
Public schools are more than just bricks and mortar. They should be places where we set aside our political and religious agendas, come together and support our children. Good News Clubs preach a very different message. Children have every right to talk about their religion with their friends, but too often there have been very aggressive efforts on the part of kids who were in the club that amounted to faith-based coercion or bullying. This happened to a daughter of a friend of mine. The teacher had to intervene and explain to the other child that the world has different religions and they should all be respected. The girl was devastated. She actually started to cry and said “but that’s what they taught me in school.”
Again, I don’t have a problem with children discussing religious beliefs, but I do have a problem with them believing that those beliefs are sanctioned and endorsed by a public school. This is the heart of what is wrong with the Good News Clubs.
How are do these clubs undermine support for public education?
Parents shouldn’t have to get drawn into these culture wars in our schools. If it gets ugly and the community becomes divided, parents of all stripes begin to withdraw. It really harms the public school environment and undermines support for the institution as a whole. I think sowing divisions and disharmony is certainly part of the plan.
To avoid a controversy, some schools may just decide to shut down all after-school programs to avoid singling out Good News Clubs. That is not the way to go. I see that as sad diminishment of public education. One of the greater things about public schools is that they are community centers. Parents and kids need those after-school activities. Without them, support for schools can erode. So, like I say in the book, the tactic on the part of many who are behind these clubs is, ‘if you can’t own it, break it.”
What’s the connection between Good News Clubs and the movements promoting vouchers and other so-called reforms?
It’s all part of the same extensive network. The funders behind the Child Evangelical Fellowship have strong ties to the same groups who advocate for voucher programs and other initiatives to deprive the public education system of funding. They want to divert money away from public schools often toward private religious schools. And these groups are often the first ones to attack teachers unions, who speak up strongly for schools. Getting rid of them makes their job a lot easier.
There’s also an alliance of convenience between those who are pushing certain measures for privateering purposes and those doing it for religious purposes. When a presidential candidate says he supports shutting the Department of Education and offers no viable alternative, he’ll be supported by people who not believe in public schools, including many on the Religious Right. It’s a very powerful and dangerous alliance.
What actions can people who are concerned about Good News Clubs take?
First, stay informed and help raise awareness. Be knowledgeable of the separation of church and state and support candidates who will work to bring better people to the judiciary. Citizens can get more involved in local school boards and advocate for policies that set certain standards for after-school clubs. We need to strengthen programs and policies that promote tolerance and civility in our schools, and broaden the discussion of bullying to include the kind of faith-based coercion that Good News Clubs can create. And always fight for public education. Look behind the curtain and find out who is behind these movements to weaken our schools. If we allow this movement to generate discontent or apathy toward public education, then its mission accomplished.