Debate about the merits of Christian versus public schools has been a touchy subject for Baptist Press before.
Former Baptist Press reporter Todd Starnes now works for a radio station in Jackson, Tenn. (toddstarnes.com)
Two years ago BP published a story quoting U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige as appearing to suggest that children are better off in a private than public school.
"All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith," Paige told BP contributing writer Todd Starnes in a story published April 7, 2003. "Where a child is taught that, there is a source of strength greater than themselves."
The quote was picked up by national media including the Washington Post, setting off a firestorm of criticism that nearly cost the education secretary his job.
It did end Starnes' career as a writer for Baptist Press. He had worked at the BP's central office in Nashville as staff writer and assistant editor before moving to a new job as director of communications at Union University. After the flap, BP took his story down and replaced it with a full transcript of the interview, which had been recorded by Paige.
"Todd Starnes has been a trusted correspondent but no longer will be employed to write for Baptist Press," said an editor's note.
The comment got Paige in hot water with teacher's groups and in Congress, including calls that he apologize or resign. He responded with a hastily called press conference. He did not deny making the statement but said the context did not make it clear he was responding to a question about private and public universities, rather than elementary or secondary schools.
But some critics, like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, found other comments in the full transcript even more troubling.
Paige told Starnes that parents are "absolutely" justified in pulling their children out of public schools in favor of home-schooling or sending them to private schools.
"No child should be tied to a school that's failing them," he said. "It is one of the, I think, most grievous sins that we have in the United States as far as school is concerned, that is insisting that a child attends a school that's failing them. A child should be free to--a parent should be free to select a school that best meets that child's needs, whether it's private or whether it's public or whether it's a cyber-school or whether it's home schooling or whatever."
Asked whether public schools should do more to embrace religious values, Paige replied, "Absolutely. I think that religious values are wonderful values that we should embrace in our daily lives wherever we are," including when "kids are in school."
Instead of challenging a question about why "there's such animosity towards religion and God in general in the schools and in the educational system," the secretary said: "It's a real puzzle to me. My upbringing just shields from me from even thinking that way, so I can't imagine why, what's at the root of all of that."
Paige touted the top benefit of religious schools as "the strong value system support."
"In some of our other schools, we don't have quite as strong a push for values as I think we would need," he said. "In a religious environment the value system is pretty well set and supported. In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it's very hard to get consensus around some core values."
Paige told Starnes he attends Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and reads his Bible and prays every day. He said America is "very fortunate" to have a man like President Bush in the White House, describing him as "a person who makes decisions based on their faith and what is what they see to be right rather than putting their finger in the wind to see which way the wind is blowing."
"Given the choice between private and Christian--or private and public universities, what do you think--who do you think has the best deal?" Starnes asked near the end of the interview.
"That's a judgment, too, that would vary, because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities," Paige answered. "But, you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, and so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally."
After reading the transcript, Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State renewed his call for Paige to resign.
"It is apparent to me, after reading this transcript, that you do not appreciate religious diversity in America or the application of church-state separation to public schools," Lynn wrote in a letter to Paige.
Lynn concluded the letter by noting that Paige at first refused to repudiate his comments--and even endorsed them—but later appeared to be shifting the blame to the Baptist Press reporter, who was fired over the incident.
"Despite your protestations to the contrary, it is obvious to me, Dr. Paige, that you do not value church-state separation and religious diversity in America's public schools," Lynn said. "I believe this makes you unsuitable for the public trust you have been given. I urge you to please resign your post."
Paige ran into trouble again last year when he called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization." He later issued a statement saying the comment, made during a meeting with governors, "was an inappropriate choice of words."
Starnes is now a reporter for radio station KFBK in Jackson, Tenn. He recently underwent emergency surgery for a life-threatening heart condition. Prior to surgery he started an audio journal on the station's Web site to share his progress through preparation, surgery and recovery.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.