City, state to scrutinize charter curriculum that questions evolution

A Texas-based education organization with approval to open two charter schools in Indianapolis this year uses curriculum that teaches creationism and Christian-based character virtues, according to an article by the online magazine

The article has prompted an expedited review of the curriculum of Responsive Education Solutions Inc. by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter schools office and by the Indiana Charter School Board—the two entities that approved ResponsiveEd to open schools here.

But officials at ResponsiveEd say the Slate article takes elements of its curriculum out of context. They say their schools do not teach creationism, but rather teach evolution while acknowledging—“but not exploring”—the ways in which evolution has been questioned or criticized.

Slate, in a review of workbooks used in ResponsiveEd’s charter schools, found claims that “the fossil record is ‘sketchy.’ That evolution is ‘dogma’ and an ‘unproved theory’ with no experimental basis.”

“ResponsiveEd has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to the far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state,” wrote Zach Kopplin in the Slate article.

In response, ResponsiveEd CEO Chuck Cook sent a letter to Ballard’s staff and the Indiana Charter School Board, explaining how the Slate accusations are off-base. The letter, which can be read here, includes every reference in ResponsiveEd’s curriculum to creationism.

“We don’t teach creationism. We completely stay away from saying it’s a scientific theory,” Cook said in a phone interview with IBJ from his office in Lewisville, Texas. ResponsiveEd, a not-for-profit organization, operates 65 charter schools, serving nearly 17,000 students, in Texas and Arkansas.

“I think what bothers this activist at Slate—and he refers to himself at the end of the article as an activist—is that we’re bringing up any issues that have criticized the theories of evolution, in however many years,” Cook added. “We believe that’s important, to have our kids think critically about things. I wouldn’t say that’s anti-evolution.”

In November, Ballard’s office approved the opening of Founders Classical Academy, a K-12 ReponsiveEd school, for later this summer. Also, the Indiana Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana General Assembly, approved the opening later this year of Premier High School, a dropout recovery school operated by ResponsiveEd.

Those agencies said they found nothing objectionable in ResponsiveEd’s curriculum before granting charters to the organization. But they’re taking a closer look now.

“Any time questions are raised, we’re going to look into it,” said Jason Kloth, Ballard’s deputy mayor for education.

ResponsiveEd officials alerted both Ballard’s staff and the Indiana Charter School Board to the Slate article when it was published on Jan. 16, and have since sent their entire science and history curricular materials to both agencies for their review.

Neither the mayor’s office nor the state charter board reviews curriculum materials in detail before approving a charter. Instead, they analyze the “scope and sequence” of a school’s curriculum, to make sure it aligns with Indiana educational standards.

Then, before a school opens, the mayor’s office and state charter board staffs employ academic analysts to review curriculum materials. But even then, those reviews do not scrutinize every page.

In this case, however, the mayor’s office likely will look at every page of ResponsiveEd’s curriculum.

“We don’t want to be in the business of mandating certain types of curriculum,” said Brandon Brown, who is Ballard’s director of charter schools. But, he added, “Given the public nature of this and these questions, … we will spend the next week or two weeks reading through all their curriculum.”

The Slate article examined what ResponsiveEd calls “Knowledge Units,” which it uses in its Premier dropout recovery schools. It does not use those materials in its Founders Classical Academies, which is the school Ballard’s office approved. Even so, Brown and Kloth said, they are reviewing the Knowledge Units as well as the curriculum of the Founders Classical Academy.

Slate noted a few inaccuracies in ResponsiveEd’s history curriculum and took issue with some of its wording For instance, the ResponsiveEd materials say that feminism has forced women to rely on the government as a “surrogate husband,” that the New Deal programs of the 1930s fostered “dependency on the Federal government,” and a reference to “the homosexual lifestyle.” They also refer to pre-Christian populations as “pagan” and refer to recent state approvals of gay marriage as a repeal of “laws against the homosexual lifestyle.”

Slate also accuses ResponsiveEd of using Christian-based character materials created by Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles and Texas-based Accelerated Christian Education.

Cook said ResponsiveEd has, indeed, adapted those materials into its curriculum, but has done so in a way that complies with all laws and requirements under its charters.

“It’s no different than the millions of people that teach in our public schools, all over the country, and you have people of various faith backgrounds. They’re teaching and they’re doing a good job. Nobody’s crying foul,” Cook said. “Their faith coming into the classroom doesn’t mean they’re going to violate the law, that they’re going to violate the constitution, just because they go to church on Sunday or they go to a mosque."

Emily Richardson, interim executive director of the state charter school board, also said her staff would take a careful look at ResponsiveEd’s curriculum.

“ResponsiveEd reached out to the ICSB early Thursday morning [Jan. 16] regarding the article and has been transparent about their curricular materials mentioned in the piece, providing the ICSB prompt access to these materials for our careful review,” Richardson wrote in an e-mail. “We are confident in our rigorous application and preopening process, during which ResponsiveEd has provided evidence of instruction based on Indiana standards and operation in compliance with Indiana and federal law.”

Indiana law does not say what public schools can or can’t teach in their science classrooms, although the curriculum standards adopted by state agencies have called for the teaching of evolution. In 2012, state lawmakers sought to pass a law allowing the teaching of creationism, but the bill was not successful.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1987 case Edwards V. Aguillard that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of both evolution and creationism was unconstitutional.

Also, in 2005, two federal courts struck down state laws that allowed public schools to teach theories questioning Darwinian evolution, such as intelligent design, in science classrooms.

“It is already permissible to discuss religion in a history, philosophy, or a comparative religion course in a public school. In these courses, a diverse array of religious views can be discussed,” noted Suzanne Eckes, a lawyer who teaches at the IU School of Education in Bloomington. “It becomes questionable, however, when creationism is taught in a science course.

"An attempt to supplement the teaching of evolution in a public school classroom with creationism would likely be seen [by courts] as favoring one religion over another and in violation of the First Amendment.”

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