August 9, 2020

Ms. Klein does not believe Jesus rode a dinosaur to burning man

The title is a joke, not a slight. I have no inside knowledge about Rebecca Klein’s relationship with any living or dead deity.

She’s an education writer who recently tweeted about a 2017 story she wrote about “voucher schools.”

The Point: Klein says schools taking public money teach religious fiction to students.

The Problem: Though written with integrity, it plays into a trendy anti-Christian narrative that fuels the anti-Betsy Devos matterhorn. Also, singling out schools that receive vouchers works if those schools do harm that is unique to their kind of school. Is that the case here?

Here’s Klein’s tweet that caught my attention:

I created a database of every voucher school in the country. I found AT LEAST 33% of schools use these extremist curriculums.

They teach kids to see other religions as evil, women as lesser. Textbooks call civil rights activists “black supremacists”

— Rebecca Klein (@rklein90) February 2, 2019

I’m instantly intrigued because she has a large data set and I wonder what story it can tell.

At the same time, I’m sensitive about her angle because examples like calling civil rights activists “black supremacists” is hardly a private school problem exclusively. 

While some conservatives charge public school textbooks are dotted with anti-Trump bias, and that these books turn black supremacists into civil rights leaders, there are are questions that come from the left too.

But Klein’s article claims voucher schools “can teacher whatever they want” and it turns out they are teaching straight up lies, which makes me ask two questions.

1. Are private schools that receive public money able to “teach whatever they want” to an extent that’s greater or different than a local school board’s power to adopt whatever curriculum they want?

2. Is the rate of “extremist” or erroneous information in private school curriculum unique to private schools (especially Christian schools).

On the first question, I believe states can set curriculum standards however they wish. Curriculum battles are frequent because ideological members of the public take issue with how history it told, or how religion is treated, or how political biases are rendered through the lessons.

Klein might say the difference between public and private is one of oversight. Yes, states and local districts could produce curriculum that teaches children that Socrates rode a jet ski, it probably would never happen because of the layers of democratic oversight.

She puts it this way:

Most states have little oversight on the curriculum used in schools that participate in private school choice programs. Some states have zero regulations on the topic. Others require private schools to follow the state’s broad-based content standards but specify little else. (Rhode Island’s stipulations appear the most strict: Curricula in private schools must be submitted and largely equivalent to what is taught in public schools.)


Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education started selling textbooks in the early 1970s, a few decades before Wisconsin enacted the nation’s first voucher program. At the time, enrollment in fundamentalist Christian schools was booming. For one, recent Supreme Court decisions had banned school Bible readings and official school prayer. Groups of evangelical Protestants were alarmed.
The founders of these textbook companies dedicated their lives to pushing fundamentalist viewpoints. Abeka leaders Arlin and Beka Horton also founded Pensacola Christian College in Florida, which outlaws dancing and other “satanic practices.” They also founded Pensacola Christian Academy, a K-12 school that currently receives public funding for student scholarships via Florida’s tax credit program.

I encourage you to read her entire piece because it is data rich, the infographics are killer, and her writing does a great job about connecting the stories of real people who have been harmed by indefensible educational practices in Christian schools.

In my mind I know it’s an important story that must be told, but in my heart I feel moved to say “hey, traditional schools do teach nonsense as fact too.”

Why is it schools of choice have to answer to repeated inquiries into their discrimination, funding, curriculum, and enrollment while the majority of schools, the traditional ones, are held harmless?

Why not compile a database of every school – not just the private ones – in the country so we can see what percentage of them use error-laden textbooks and questionable curriculum?

A few a points about that:

  • In 2001, a rigorous study of middle-school science textbooks found “a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and drawings that represented impossible situations.”
  • A McGraw-Hill text book that called enslaved black people “workers” in a chapter about the Atlantic slave trade.
  • Scholars reviewing textbooks in Texas found one that was “riddled with factual errors” and  “promotes racism and culturally offensive stereotypes, such as Mexicans being lazy, not valuing hard work and bringing crime and drugs into the United States.” The researchers found 500 pages worth of errors and estimated the books were used by 85% of American school children.

That’s substantial.

One old website I found that catalogued 249 problems with K12 textbooks found errors it says is of the “2 + 2 = 5” variety.

Like: “James Monroe was the last president to have fought in the Revolutionary War.”– American Nation in the Modern Era (Holt, 2003)

In fact, Andrew Jackson, not James Monroe, was the last president to have fought in the American Revolution.


“The Dred Scott case was only the second one in American history in which the Supreme Court reversed a federal legislative act.” 
— The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century (McDougal, 2003), p. 162, bottom right margin, “Background” 

Which, according to the site, is the wrong description. “The 1857 Dred Scott decision did not reverse the Missouri Compromise, because the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act had already repealed it.

These examples have me rushing to get my kids’ school books and beginning the fine tooth examination.

I’ve had some examples bad lessons in schools that hit home. In my lovely Minnesota we had a black student in a suburban school district given an assignment that asked her to devise the best way to colonize Africa.

We also had several dust ups with curriculum that described people of color as lazy.

And, at a Minneapolis Montessori school students were treated to a social studies computer program that virtualized slavery. It put students in the role of a slave girl trying to escape, and to win you earn badges by answering questions from random white people.

These schools get public money, they aren’t schools of choice, and the oversight isn’t preventing dumb things from happening.

Maybe that isn’t as clickable as those exposing those wacky Evangelicals who are teaching kids Jesus that made friends with dinosaurs.

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