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.
The teachers union cites a "brainstorming'' list made public by the board last fall that suggested eliminating science books that are "biased toward evolution," teaching "abstinence-only and a pro-life approach" in health classes, offering students time for character and spiritual growth and inviting the Gideons to offer Bibles to students.
The list caused a public outcry. Board members tried to calm critics by saying that any idea would have to go through a lengthy review before becoming policy.
Concerns have resurfaced this fall amid board discussions on temporary private-school vouchers and the promotion of "other forms of education,'' such as home-schooling, as options for relieving increasingly crowded schools.
Debates over such issues have become increasingly common across the nation, as religious groups have backed candidates to serve on local school boards, according to Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The group is challenging in federal court the Dover, Pa., school system's effort to teach intelligent design and monitoring the Odessa, Tex., school board's decision to adopt a Bible curriculum.
John F. Warren, a Waldorf pastor who hosts forums for candidates and keeps track of the school board's work, said the teachers union in Charles has taken suggestions out of context.
"Why is it that it's all right for the liberal viewpoint to expound the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is just a theory, but it's not all right to have the conservative viewpoint of creationism?" said Warren, of the Calvary Gospel Church. "I think it's impossible to elect anybody whose philosophical, political and religious views would not come into play with their leadership."
The change in leadership came in January when Young, a nurse, was elected chairwoman with the support of Bailey, Crawford and newcomer Jennifer S. Abell, who was appointed last year to fill a vacancy and is now the vice chairwoman.
The three elected members of the new majority did not run as a formal slate. In 1998, Bailey, an incumbent, endorsed Young and offered her some in-kind contributions. Young was the top vote-getter that year. Crawford came in fifth out of seven in 2002, when all the board seats were on the ballot. Abell, director of March of Dimes for Southern Maryland, was appointed by school board members after an application process. She describes herself as an independent and not as religiously "devout" as her colleagues.
The four routinely vote together, making up a majority on the board. They are united by the view that past boards were not active enough in challenging long-held policies.
"This board has been bold and attention-getting," said Crawford, a security guard in the District. "We're not trying to make headlines. It's just the negative reaction of people in the education world and the media toward conservative views."
Crawford's beliefs were shaped by his family and religious schooling, including his studies at Jerry Falwell's evangelical Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Crawford is the scion of a Republican family that is well known in Southern Maryland. At least one of his family members -- his father or uncle, or both -- has appeared on ballots in nearly every state election since 1986.
Crawford was the first in the family to win in 2002 at age 25. Public schools, he said, should be teaching students humility and to distinguish between right and wrong. His teachers, he said, started the school day with prayer.
"There's a huge element of humility in praying, seeing the teacher being humble before a higher authority,'' he said. There are of course legal limitations in public schools, Crawford added, but "not nearly what we're taught to think."
Crawford's faith also conflicts with the school system's science curriculum, which he said negates the existence of a creator by teaching evolution as outlined by the Maryland Department of Education. Crawford said he is not advocating the inclusion of other theories, such as intelligent design, but he wants teachers to raise more questions about evolution.
Though Young is outspoken about her beliefs and decision to home-school her children, Bailey dislikes public attention. At board meetings, he is the self-effacing number cruncher who peppers school officials with questions.
But Bailey, 51, is transformed when he speaks to troubled teenagers at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County during a Bible study class that he has led for more than 20 years. He paces the circle of nine boys, rattles off memorized verses and picks up their casual language to try to help them find faith as he did at age 27.
At home, on the walls of the basement office where he runs a lumber sales business, there is a mix of Bible quotes, a poster for a Promise Keepers rally and a Westlake High School calendar.
Bailey quotes from the Bible to explain why he ran for school board in 1994. He seems taken aback by the question and responds with his own question: "Don't you care about your fellow man?"
Although Bailey and his wife attended Charles County public schools, they decided to teach their children at home, partly because of his flexible schedule and his wife's interest in education.
"They're like their dad and have a hard time sitting still," he said of his three sons, jokingly. He added, "People are different and have different needs."
Although Bailey's daughter is enrolled at a public high school, he has also had his motives challenged in previous years.
"I love the Lord. He's blessed my life," Bailey said. "But I understand the role I'm in."
Still, Bailey can be vague about what he wants to accomplish. He shared with a reporter a booklet from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, and it is not uncommon for Bailey to pass on information to his colleagues about religious education alternatives, such as events or speakers on the topic of creationism.
When asked whether he supports such efforts, Bailey said: "We need to be knowledgeable about all things affecting education. Just because I share information with somebody doesn't mean I support it."
For Young, the decision to remove three of her children from public schools stemmed from her own education in Prince George's in the 1970s, which she said was lackluster. Young struggled at the University of Maryland after acing her high school courses. When her eldest daughter started bringing home "A" papers with spelling and grammar mistakes, Young decided to try home-schooling for her younger children, who now attend Catholic school.
After the storm about its list of suggestions last year, the board has tried to be meticulous in clarifying its actions. Even if the board wanted to offer temporary vouchers at crowded schools, Bailey explained, such a program would require action by county commissioners or legislation in Annapolis.
Still, the questions keep coming. The union has warned of a legal challenge to any voucher proposal. At last week's meeting, Barbara Allen, who has taught elementary school reading for 10 years, addressed her comments to Young.
"She who will not even send her own children to our public schools has no business making decisions about a population she doesn't know and doesn't want to know," Allen said.
Superintendent James E. Richmond, who serves at the board's discretion, has not been shy about clashing with board members on issues such as curriculum or how many students should take the SAT. He has a different view of the diverse opinions on the board, calling the debates a "healthy discussion."
"It's heated," he said, "because it's what we believe."