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Fighting History In Harlem

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By George F. Will
Thursday, December 6, 2007

HARLEM (or maybe not) -- Asked whether his brownstone residence is in Harlem, the Rev. Michel Faulkner says, well, that depends. "When something bad happens, the neighborhood is called Harlem. When something good happens, it is the Upper West Side." Faulkner is trying to make something good happen, but he is opposed by a speaker of the U.S. House who died 114 years ago but whose mischief goes marching on.

Faulkner, 50, is an African American who played defensive line for Virginia Tech and, briefly, the New York Jets. Recoiling from what he calls "the social and community chaos" that he saw growing up in Anacostia, and that he blamed on Lyndon Johnson's Great Society welfarism, Faulkner served as vice president for urban ministry at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He left that sedate environment to minister to the down-and-out around Times Square, before its sinfulness had been scrubbed away.

Now he wants to create a charter school -- a public school enjoying considerable autonomy from, among other burdens, teachers unions. It would be affiliated with his New Horizon Church. But New York's constitution has a Blaine Amendment.

Republican James G. Blaine came within 1,047 votes of becoming president. He lost New York, and hence the White House, by that margin to Grover Cleveland in 1884. New York's large Catholic population loathed Republicans after a Presbyterian clergyman, speaking in Blaine's presence, said the Democratic Party's antecedents were "rum, Romanism and rebellion."

Protestants resented the impertinence of Catholic immigrants who founded schools that taught Catholicism as forthrightly as public schools then taught Protestantism. Protestants thought a public school should be, in Horace Mann's words, a "nursery of piety" -- of Protestant piety -- dispensing "judicious religious instruction," judiciousness understood as Protestantism.

In 1875, Blaine, hoping anti-Catholicism would propel him to the presidency, unsuccessfully tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to stipulate that no public money should go to schools "under the control of any religious sect." The pervasive Protestantism was not considered sectarian. Eventually 37 states passed similar amendments to their constitutions. Congress required Blaine provisions in the constitutions of new states entering the union.

New York's proscribes public assistance to any school "wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught." Faulkner, however, wants to bring his church's family-support skills to the task of teaching only a secular curriculum. A Baptist, he shares his denomination's traditional suspicion of entangling religion with government. He just wants to increase choice and competition within the city's school system.

Not until about 15 percent of a school district's children are in charter schools do those schools exert pressure to change the way the district functions. Of this city's 1,453 public schools, only 61 are charters. They serve 19,000 of the 1.1 million public school students -- 1.7 percent.

Andy Smarick, writing in Education Next, reports that only 2 percent of America's public school pupils are in charters, which are being opened very slowly -- only 335 a year nationwide, even though the students already on charter waiting lists would fill more than 1,000 schools. At that rate, by 2020 charters will serve only 5 percent of the public school enrollment. One reason for the slow growth is that some school districts, terrified of competition, mount expensive advertising campaigns -- parents' tax dollars at work -- to dissuade parents from choosing charter schools.

Faulkner wants to create a school that will be nimble at overcoming the sort of problems detailed in a recent report by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley for the Educational Testing Service. These include:

The out-of-wedlock birthrate among black women under 30 is 77 percent. Only 35 percent of black children live with two parents. By age 4, the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than the average child in a working-class family and about 35 million more than the average child in a welfare family. Only 24 percent of white eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television on an average weekday; 59 percent of their black peers do.

Faulkner, represented by the Gotham Legal Foundation, wants a federal court to declare the Blaine Amendment an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. He really should ask the legislature to repeal the amendment because it is an unsavory residue of 19th-century bigotry and an obstacle to educational experimentation. Many legislators, however, are on leashes held by teachers unions that, in their grim defense of his retrograde amendment, are appropriate allies of James G. Blaine.

georgewill@washpost.com


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