by Brian Washington
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Arizona educator Josh Buckley teaches government to seniors at Red Mountain High School in the Mesa Unified School District. This year, his students are getting a lesson ripped from the headlines of their local newspaper. It will focus on a current U.S. District Court case accusing a local charter school of ignoring religious liberty and the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
“The separation of church and state is an idea that hits students again and again as we talk about freedom of religion,” said Buckley. “They’ll be able to see that kind of distinction and say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem right.’”
Heritage Academy, a Mesa-based charter school, considered a public school because it gets taxpayer dollars, stands accused of using controversial textbooks that mix religion with history lessons.
We have a strong record of charter schools doing what they want to do in Arizona,” said Buckley, who points out that charter schools are managed by for-profit companies and are not held to the same standards as tradition public schools. “So to find out that a charter school is skirting or outright breaking the rules isn’t totally surprising.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State launched a suit against Heritage earlier this month after it says it filed several complaints with the state agency overseeing charters—complaints it says went nowhere.
“As a matter of law, and as a matter of the constitutionally-required respect for the religious liberty of all Americans, no public school student should be so compelled to learn and practice the preferred faith of a school official,” states the lawsuit. “No parent should have their rights to determine the religious upbringing of their children so usurped.”
“If this happened in a neighborhood public school, a teacher could face disciplinary action up to and including losing their teaching certificate,” said Joe Thomas, a government teacher from Mesa and president of the Arizona Education Association, which represents thousands of educators throughout the state.
“In Arizona, however, charter schools are not required to hire certified teachers, and charter schools face little to no accountability or oversight even though they are funded by taxpayer dollars.”
The charges against Heritage seem to fit with the overall plan of conservative, right-wing state lawmakers who want to drain public schools of vital funding to subsidize the cost of tuition at private and religious schools.
The state currently spends $6,314 per student for those attending charter schools compared to $5,198 for each public school student.
“For those parents who want their children to have a religious education, they are entitled to it,” said Jonathan Parker, who teaches AP high school history in Glendale. “But if it comes at a cost of syphoning public funds away from students who are entitled to a quality public education, that’s not right.”
“With this case, I think we’re seeing some ‘cafeteria constitutionalism’ where we pick and choose the parts of the constitution we intend to abide by as long as they are not inconvenient.”
However, educators are hopeful the courts will set things straight and rule in favor of the Constitution and parents’ rights to determine a child’s religious upbringing.
“My hope is this will be seen as a violation of the first amendment,” said Buckley. “Religion is a personal matter that should be decided within a family and not left up to a publicly-funded school.”