From the dais of a windowless meeting room, the elected leader of Southern Maryland's largest school system strained to smile politely this week as she faced angry accusations from a teacher.
She had heard similar questions before: How can you be an advocate for the public schools when you home-school your children? Are you going to replace science books with Bibles? And why are you trying to censor classic literature?
Southern Maryland encompasses, three counties, Calvert County, Charles County and St. Mary's County. Charles County is the county that sits geographically closest to Washington, DC of the three and has experienced phenomenal growth in the past decade. Initially, as I said, I thought that people were reacting to a situation they created themselves, meaning that enough people did not vote against the four conservative members of the Board, so in a politically divided county, the fight was partisan.
But the story goes much deeper, into the heart of what it means for school boards to set policy and the implications of an elected school board.
Margaret Young, chairwoman of the Charles County Board of Education, has at times taught her children at home in Waldorf using a Christian-based curriculum. She says she wants teachers to stop assigning books that contain profanity and what she believes are immoral messages.
The problem for critics is that Mrs. Young is advocating a different set of criteria for developing curricula, one that is not steeped in liberal, self-esteem based, social justice language, but one that some people find offensive because of its conservative, religion basis. Similarly, Mrs. Young felt that the public school system was doing a disservice to her children, whom she stated "needed to be educated right now." Young and her supporters argue they are seeking a return to back-to-basics lessons, greater parental invovlement and character education--factors that are often missing in education in Maryland. (Remember, this is a state whose largest county (Montgomery) once appointed an 11-year-old girl to be the student advisor on a sex-education curriculum development panel.)
Charles County takes a place in the growing debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. The Charles County School Board's majority is unabashedly Christian, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Cannot a religious-minded school board member not make an effective judgment about the efficacy of education? Is such a person automatically suspect?
Obviously the answer depends on your point of view. But cannot, indeed should not, an elected body, consider and advocate for alternatives to the prevalent thinking? The fact of the matter is that many school systems in Maryland are very good and some are very bad. Many of the problems associated with poor school districts falls into the realm of poor management. Here is a school board that openly questions prior management, leading to heated debates. Indeed a school board the debates issues instead of acting as a rubber stamp I would argue is better than anything. At the very least the community must decided collectively how best educate their kids--and Charles County would be one of the few counties in Maryland to be actively asking the question.