Battle Over Patriotism Curriculum
May 15, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition The New York Times
Section 1; Page 22; Column 1; National Desk
TAVARES, Fla., May 13

Like other generations who went through the public schools in this small town an hour's drive northwest of Orlando, students at Tavares Middle School are taught to take pride in American citizenship and heritage. The school's athletic teams are even nicknamed the Patriots, and the school colors are red, white and blue.

But the fundamentalist Christians who dominate the Lake County school board say that is not enough. As part of a policy approved this week by a board vote of 3 to 2, teachers will be required to teach the county's 22,526 students that American culture, values and political institutions are inherently "superior to other foreign or historic cultures."

Members of the local teachers union and citizens groups are protesting the policy, which they say is jingoistic and probably illegal. They have filed an appeal to the state Department of Education, and a court challenge appears likely.

'Sort of Laughingstock'

"People don't understand the purpose and the point of this," said Keith Mullins, chairman of People for Mainstream Values, a local political action committee formed in response to the religious right's rise to power here. "We are already teaching our children to love and honor our country, so why spend all this time and money talking about something we are already doing? We've become sort of a laughingstock."

The new policy, conceived as a response to the state's multicultural education policy, is the handiwork of the board's chairman, Pat Hart, who describes herself as a patriot, a Christian and a Republican. Mrs. Hart said it was fine that students learned about other nations, as required by the state's multicultural education curriculum, so long as they were also taught that the United States was "unquestionably superior" to any other society in all of human history.

Mrs. Hart said she drafted the policy statement, which also requires teachers to promote "strong family values" and "an appreciation of our American heritage and culture," to insure that students never forget that "we are the best of the best."

Mrs. Hart, whose own children attend private religious schools, acknowledges that she has never set foot outside the United States, speaks no foreign languages and has no academic training in comparative culture, religion or government.

"I don't need to visit other countries to know that America is the best country in the world," she said. "Thousands of people risk life and limb every day to come to America because they know this is the land of the free."

2 Years of Acrimony

The controversy over multicultural education in this central Florida county, a blend of 160,000 people living in Orlando bedroom suburbs, small towns, retiree trailer parks and farms, follows nearly two years of acrimony over issues like sex education and government aid.

Mrs. Hart was elected to the board four years ago in a contest that attracted few voters. In 1992 she was joined by two other religious conservatives who, like her, espouse the views of the Christian Coalition, a group founded by Pat Robertson, and with their support, she became board chairman.

"We need to reinforce that we should be teaching America first," said Judy Pearson, a board member who voted for the new policy; otherwise, young people, "if they felt our land was inferior or equal to others, would have no motivation to go to war and defend our country."

Ms. Pearson, a member of both the Christian Coalition and the equally conservative Citizens for Excellence in Education, said she thought it was evident that "our form of government is superior to other nations because it has survived when others have fallen."

Views Dismissed as Simplistic

Phyllis Patten, one of two board members who opposed the new policy, said such views were simplistic and undemocratic.

"These are people with no experience and no education," Ms. Patten said of her fundamentalist colleagues. "You've got three people sitting on that board with high school educations who want to wrap the Bible and the flag around themselves, who don't believe in public education and are trying to undermine the system."

Mrs. Hart, who is up for election this year, originally ran on a tax-efficiency platform, emphasizing her religious agenda only after narrowly winning election.

In one early action that stirred controversy here, the revamped board rejected Federal money intended for Head Start programs for disadvantaged children. Mrs. Hart or her allies have also sought to limit sex education, to mandate creationism in the science curriculum and to limit some reading material in schools, primarily children's books by Shel Silverstein.

Policy Is Condemned

The state government, which has the authority to suspend state aid or take the issue to court, has so far taken no action against the school board. But the Education Commissioner, Doug Jamerson, quickly condemned the new policy, which he and other officials said was clearly at odds with state requirements.

"American culture is made up of many different cultures from around the world," Mr. Jamerson said. "To say American culture is superior to all others calls into question the rich history and significant contributions of all other nations and cultures whose influence helped shape this country."

Mrs. Hart dismissed the controversy, saying, "Everything is being blown out of proportion by a radical teacher's union."

Steven Farrell, an American history teacher, said teachers were not sure what the board wanted them to do. "We need clearer definitions," said Mr. Farrell. "We regard American culture as very diverse, and we're not sure what values they see as American culture."

GRAPHIC: Photo: Fundamentalist Christians on the Lake County school board in Florida have required teaching that American culture is inherently superior to others. The mascot of Tavares Middle School, an American Revolution patriot, overlooked students exchanging signatures in their yearbooks last week. (Joe Skipper for The New York Times)