Conservatives Ascendant in Charles Schools

Board member Collins A. Bailey, teaching Bible study to teenagers in Prince George's County, also has home-schooled.
Board member Collins A. Bailey, teaching Bible study to teenagers in Prince George's County, also has home-schooled. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

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?

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. As an example, she cites Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which is an option on the 10th-grade reading list.

Young, 46, has been a controversial figure on the school board since she pulled her eldest son out of fifth grade for a day in 2000 to protest a state exam she considered a meaningless diversion. But now, she leads a voting bloc that has shifted the balance of power on the seven-member board in Charles, a growing suburban county.

The conservative views of Young and her allies are not typical among school boards in the Washington region. But such ideas have been building on boards across the nation since the 1980s.

"It's not that I want to break down the public schools," Young said of her decision to home-school three of her four children. "I want to improve them for every child, but my children needed to be educated right now."

Another board member, Collins A. Bailey, is a member of the missionary group Gideons International and has also home-schooled his children. A third, Mark J. Crawford, is a former host of a radio show for Christian youth who taught at and attended religious schools. A fourth member, who sends her children to public schools, regularly votes with them.

Those in the new majority in Charles said they are moving to raise academic standards with back-to-basics lessons, character education and greater involvement by parents -- issues they campaigned on.

Critics said the effort is a distraction to educators and is one that is steeped in Christian conservatism that has no place in public schools.

"We're supposed to be educating students, not infusing them with religion," said former school board chairman James Gesl, who tried unsuccessfully last year to create a recall process to hold members more accountable to voters.

Sharon Caniglia, who was a board member for 12 years and who is the principal of a local Catholic school, said she is also concerned about the future of the school system.

"It is disappointing to see board members promote their personal agendas," she said.

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