Mesa charter school teaches religion, group says
Cathryn Creno , The Republic | azcentral.com 2:14 a.m. MST July 14, 2014
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit group,says Mesa-based Heritage Academy is illegally teaching religion
A national group that advocates for the separation of church and state is criticizing one of Arizona's oldest charter schools for using books that include controversial religious teachings in a 12th-grade history class.
Two books by Cleon Skousen, who is often cited by right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck and the "tea party" movement, are required reading for seniors at Mesa-based Heritage Academy.
Skousen, a controversial figure who was prominent in the anti-communist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, wrote that God inspired America's Founders to pen the Declaration of Independence, fight against British rule and develop the U.S. Constitution.
Two of his books, "The 5,000 Year Leap" and "The Making of America," are required reading at Heritage.
The academy's founder says one of the school's missions is to give students a deep understanding of history and introduce them to classic works by authors that range from Benjamin Franklin to Anne Frank.
"Our purpose is not to convert students to different religious views," Heritage founder and Principal Earl Taylor said. "It is to show them that religion influenced what the Founders did."
Taylor said the Skousen readings would be scaled back in the coming school year, but because of workload, not because of the complaints.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group, says that requiring students in a public charter school to read Skousen is illegally teaching religion.
"These books push 'Christian nation' propaganda and other religious teachings on impressionable, young students," said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United.
The D.C. group first sent complaints to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools in late 2013, demanding that the school stop using Skousen's books.
State charter-board officials say Heritage Academy is not breaking any laws by using the writings in an advanced history class. The board closed its investigation in April.
Americans United renewed its complaint last month.
Religious books, including the Bible, may be used in public schools as long as they are part of an academic class and not a religious lesson, said DeAnna Rowe, executive director of the State Board for Charter Schools.
She said it is not the role of the charter board to dictate which books a school may or may not use in its curriculum. School officials in Arizona select books, not state officials, she said.
"Our focus is on whether the school is upholding the mission it describes in its charter," Rowe said.
She said Heritage's mission is clear.
"Just as we have schools with a math and science focus or an arts focus, this charter school has a history focus."
Taylor said his decision to scale back on the Skousen books had more to do with workload.
"The total of the two books is about 1,200 pages," he said in an e-mail interview. "It is a lot to require the students to go through that much material. I decided to stay more with the historical quotes, leaving out a lot of the commentary and letting the students discuss the quotes, draw their own conclusions, and thereby making it more meaningful and applicable to them."
Seniors also read parts of the "Federalist Papers" and writings of early legal scholars and philosophers William Blackstone, John Locke and Montesquieu.
The complete Skousen books will be added to a list of recommended books that include Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl," "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates" and Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
Other books that explore spiritual themes on the recommended list include C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," Fritjof Capra's "The Tao of Physics" and Patrick Kavanaugh's "The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers."
Heritage opened as a private school and became a public charter school in 1995. In the coming school year, Taylor expects to enroll 650 students at its Mesa campus, 250 students at a campus in Queen Creek and 300 students at a campus in Laveen.
Heritage earned an A in state rankings in 2013 based on student performance on state tests.
Taylor said Skousen's books are used to teach its students, who have a variety of faiths and beliefs, how religion influenced the thoughts of America's Founders — not to teach religion itself.
Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini and opinions digital editor Joanna Allhands discuss whether charter schools should have more regulation over their curriculum.
The Skousen story
Skousen, who died in 2006, has supporters and detractors.
In the 1940s, Skousen, a conservative Mormon, worked as a clerk and then as a special agent for the FBI. In the 1950s, he joined the faculty of Brigham Young University, where he taught religion. He is best known for his books, which denounce communism and call the creation of America a divine miracle.
"The 5,000 Year Leap" was published in 1981 but soared in popularity in 2007 after Glenn Beck brought listeners' attention to it. In the book, Skousen asserts that more progress has been achieved in the last 200 years or so — since the founding of America — than in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined.
"I beg you to read this book filled with words of wisdom which I can only describe as divinely inspired," Beck wrote in a forward for the 2009 edition of the book.
Christina Botteri, a spokeswoman for the California-based National Tea Party Federation, said "The 5,000 Year Leap" is considered a handbook of tea-party ideals. The book inspired her to become involved with tea-party politics.
"I am holding a copy of 'The 5,000 Year Leap' in my hand," she said. "Early on in the movement, people would carry it around and talk about it."
Botteri said "The 5,000 Year Leap" does talk about the religious views of the Founding Fathers, but she does not believe discussion of history can be separated from the religions of the people living at the time.
Gene Dufoe, a member of the Red Mountain Tea Party in east Mesa, said Skousen is "well-known among tea-party members."
Dufoe said he sees nothing controversial in "The 5,000 Year Leap." He said the book explains "why has this country produced 25 percent of the world's wealth with only 5 percent of the world's population and why is much of the world's population trying to get to America to succeed."
Legal and historical experts have mixed reactions to the use of Skousen in classrooms.
One critic is Ernie Lazar, a California researcher who specializes in studying America's extreme-right wing. Lazar says Skousen must be read with skepticism because he has been known to fudge details about his career with the FBI, making it sound like he was more of an expert in anti-communism efforts than he was.
"Most of his FBI experience was in administrative matters, juvenile-delinquency research and speeches, and being a liaison with police department training schools along with general public-relations matters," Lazar said in an e-mail. "He did no research while in the FBI on subversive activities or on the communist movement."
Garrett Epps is a writer, legal scholar and law professor at the University of Baltimore who has poked holes in Skousen's philosophies.
"Skousen's account of the growth and meaning of the Constitution is quite inaccurate," he told The Arizona Republic in an e-mail interview.
"Parts of his major textbook, 'The Making of America,' present a systematically racist view of the Civil War. ... A long description of slavery in the book claims that the state (of slavery) was beneficial to African Americans and that Southern racism was caused by the 'intrusion' of northern abolitionists and advocates of equality for the freed slaves," Epps said.
Epps said he believes that "any student taught from these materials in a public institution is being subjected to religious indoctrination" and "is also being crippled educationally and will be ill-prepared to take part in any serious program of instruction of American government and law."
However, two Arizona State University history scholars say Skousen's books are more benign.
Eduardo Pagan, a history professor and vice provost for academic excellence and diversity, called Skousen's writings innocuous. He would not mind their use as a tool for showing students how religious thinking shaped the minds of America's Founders.
He said Skousen's books present an idealized view of the United States, reflecting the pride and patriotism of many Americans immediately after World War II.
"They read like books out of the 1950s," he said. "They are no more harmful than that."
"I can think of more injurious ways of interpreting the past," Pagan said.
Donald Critchlow, an ASU history professor and director of the university's new Center for Political Thought and Leadership, said Skousen's books work in a 12th-grade history class that includes other writings.
"Skousen clearly has a patriotic agenda," he said. "I don't see explicit teaching of religion but a patriotic interpretation of the Constitution. Placed within the larger context of the reading list, I did not find a problem."
Critchlow added that students who complete the Heritage reading list would "read more history than the average high-school student or even a college student."
Hugh Hallman, superintendent of Tempe Preparatory Academy and Tempe's former mayor, said he also is not troubled by Heritage's use of the Skousen books. His college-prep charter also aims to expose students to a wide variety of non-fiction and literature.
If schools had to stop using all books that mention God, Hallman said, they would have to stop teaching Greek mythology, he said.
"The point is to challenge students' minds so they can learn to think," he said.
Luchenitser, with the D.C. group, said he kept Heritage's reading list in mind when writing the letters demanding that the school drop Skousen.
"The two (Skousen) books, however, are mandatory readings that indoctrinate particular religious beliefs," he said. "They have no place in a public-school curriculum."
He said Americans United, founded in 1947, would consider a lawsuit against Heritage if it does not drop Skousen from its curriculum.
The non-profit was one of several plaintiffs in the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case, in which a U.S. District Court judge in Pennsylvania struck down a school-board policy mandating instruction about "intelligent design" in a public-school science class.
"Intelligent design" is the theory that life, or the universe, did not come about by chance and was designed by God or an intelligent entity.
Asked whether Taylor's plan to reduce the amount of Skousen readings solves the problem, Luchenitser said no.
"If Heritage Academy still provides the two books to students, uses them as textbooks in their history class ... and recommends that students read the books in their entirety, they will still be promoting particular religious beliefs to students," he said.
Taylor said he has no plans to completely drop Skousen's writings.
"We are complying with state law," Taylor said.
Here is the process the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools uses to investigate complaints:
• Charter-board staff sends a letter to the charter-school representative asking for a response to allegations in the complaint.
• The charter's response is reviewed to determine whether the school's actions are supported by board policy and/or are within the limits of the law and the charter contract.
• The charter board staff may:
— determine that no violation occurred or that the violation has been corrected.
— require the charter school to cease practices that take it out of compliance and provide documentation of its actions to correct the violation.
— implement required corrective action and potentially withhold funds until compliance is demonstrated.
— refer the matter to the Arizona Attorney General's Fraud Unit or other entity.
Source: Arizona State Board for Charter Schools