It was in Killeen, Tex., in America's Bible belt, that Sally D. Reed's educational crusade began.
She was showing an experimental film in her high school civics class, a film about life, death and choices. It showed five people in a lifeboat that had room for only one more. Several other people were clinging to the boat, hoping to get the last seat. One was a blue-collar factory worker, another a brain surgeon. The students were to discuss who should live and who should die.
"The kids loved it, but it just didn't sit right with me," Reed said. "Suddenly, it hit me -- I am desensitizing young children to death. And if I desensitize them to death, they will more readily accept abortion and euthanasia." Reed said she refused to show the film, and urged other teachers to do the same.
But she said she ran into opposition from local members of the National Education Association, who, she said, scolded her for trying to impose her Bible-thumping morality on young people. She recalls telling them, "Don't try to impose your immorality on these students!"
Reed has since become a street fighter in an ideological war being waged by groups of the so-called New Right. Reed's group, the National Council for Better Education, which she says has 10,000 members, concentrates its fire on the 1.7-million-member NEA, the nation's largest teachers' union, which has traditionally had a liberal, and controversial, political agenda.
This pitched battle reflects an ideological tug of war over education in America, with the prize being influence over the hearts and minds of the next generation. It is a war being waged in the halls of the Education Department here, and in school-board meetings across the country.
Reed is one of the scrappiest of the New Right activists in education. Her weapons include a half-million copies of her 135-page paperback "NEA: Propaganda Front of the Radical Left."
In that book, Reed asserts that NEA members "oppose the free enterprise system in America, openly advocate socialism and call for the disarmament of this country so that the Soviet Union would defeat it and establish a World Order."
In an interview Reed said, "The NEA is the prime vehicle for the radical left to gain control of American politics."
She criticized the union for supporting abortion, homosexual rights, evolutionism, a nuclear-arms freeze and affirmative action. She concedes that her rhetoric is often strident, but says, "It takes a sacrificial lamb, somebody's who's willing to go out and say things that nobody else will say."
Recently she has buttressed her charges with a new teachers' poll, which she released this week at a press conference flanked by Reps. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) and Richard Armey (R-Tex.). The poll, commissioned by Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, found that most NEA members surveyed opposed federal funding for abortion and "forced" busing, and split evenly on homosexual rights.
Despite this, Reed is more a nuisance than a serious threat, said NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell. "We've made a deliberate decision not to overreact to these groups," Futrell said. She added that her union's membership has not been hurt by the attacks, and has increased by 30,000 in the last year.
The NEA has published a counterattack, a booklet called "The Radical Right Attack on the National Education Association." It purports to set out "the truth about some of the most common charges leveled against NEA members by right-wing extremists." NEA spokesmen bristle at Reed's assertions that they "support" abortion and homosexuality, retorting that they support the Supreme Court's ruling on abortion and oppose discrimination against everyone -- including homosexuals.
The introduction to the booklet warns that "these extremist groups share an obvious goal: They want to impose a new political, religious and social order on our nation, an order that unquestioningly accepts ultraconservative views on everything from foreign policy to the textbooks in our classrooms."
Other conservative education groups in the fray include Phyllis Schlafly's Illinois-based Eagle Forum, Malcolm Lawrence's Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents on Privacy Rights in Public Schools, Susan Staub's Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, and the Free Congress Foundation.
They differ on specific goals and tactics, but their theme is the same -- that parents have lost control of America's classrooms to what they see as the forces of permissiveness and Godless communism.