This post briefly reviews Belinda M. Cambre, “Tearing Down the Walls: Cyber Charter Schools and the Public Endorsement of Religion” in Tech Trends 53, no. 4 (July/August 2009): 61-64 [Available fulltext here]
Cambre, an education professor at the University of New Orleans, here summarizes the legal background of the public education and religion issue and then offers a brief speculative discussion of legal issues that might arise with cyber charters. This article is part of a special issue of Tech Trends devoted to cyber charters. Her summary of the legal background is competent if cursory. I would quibble with the way she phrased certain things, especially her language about courts recognizing a “right” to homeschool, but the rough contours of her summary are largely correct. [For a fuller discussion of the legal background of homeschooling see chapter seven of my book].
Much more interesting is the short section dealing with potential legal issues concerning religion in cyber charters. Cyber charters are public schools operating via distance learning in a child’s home. The home, says Cambre, thus becomes a public school and the parent a public school teacher. Does this mean that the legal framework that has emerged over the decades to govern the relationship between religion and public education must also be applied to the cyber school home? Is the parent to be held to the same standards of religious neutrality to which teachers in public schools are held? Must all of the curriculum and programs of a cyber charter school be able to pass the Lemon Test? Must prayer offered in the home not occur during instructional time and be student-initiated? Cambre doesn’t answer such questions, but she does well to raise them, arguing that we need to think through such matters now, for eventually court cases will be brought that will require they be answered.
My own musings: Parents whose children are enrolled in cyber charters are not public school teachers. Cyber charter students have teachers provided by the school who offer instruction, grade papers, facilitate discussion, and so on. Parents certainly can and do help their kids, but they do so in an informal way that is not part of the official curriculum or pedagogy. The cyber school’s teachers have to abide by the religious neutrality guidelines just like all public school teachers do, but parents don’t.
The more interesting and potentially controversial issue pertains to cyber charter curriculum. Can cyberschools have religious curriculum? Cambre mentions the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court decision which found (5 to 4, though she doesn’t mention that), that the Cleveland voucher program was constituitional even though it meant that public money was being used to support the entirety of private religious (usually Catholic) education. Could cyber charters follow this same logic? If government vouchers can pay for religious education, why not have all out religious charter schools? So far this step has not been taken, but Cambre wonders what would happen legally if it were. My own thought is that it probably would be seen as an unconstitutional establishment of religion, but you just never know what the courts are going to decide on stuff like this. Either way, I’m pretty sure no court would decide against the more commonplace distinction of having a secular cyber charter curriculum in the home that is supplemented by religious instruction and observances provided privately by the parent. At most, courts might specify that such religious activity must not occur during logged instructional time.
While this article could have been better, I applaud Cambre for raising these issues. More sophisticated legal minds than hers or mine would no doubt find much more to say on these important matters.