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Our View: Sin, vice, virtue in Ascent application

We strongly uphold the separation of church and state under the First Amendment, the same amendment that protects us to do our work. We’re looking at the Ascent Classical Academy of Durango application package with School District 9-R for a public charter school. ACAD supporters have said emphatically no, the school is not Christian. Yet, parts of ACAD’s application blur this church-state line.

ACAD’s classical education curriculum with traditional methods reaches back to Hillsdale College in Michigan and its Barney Charter School Initiative. Hillsdale’s website emphasizes “the blessings of civil and religious liberty and intellectual piety.” Public education funding requires a secular curriculum. ACAD refers to Hillsdale multiple times in its application. A curriculum with roots in a proudly Christian school is reasonably suspect.

Moral virtue is a tenet of classical education. Included in ACAD’s application is an essay, “A Classical Education for Modern Times” by Dr. Terrence O. Moore, a former Hillsdale history professor. “Education is a moral enterprise,” he writes. Moore gives examples of timeless moral questions youths face. Whether to tell mom a child broke a vase or not. Whether to accept a beer, a cigarette or have sex. “Anyone who thinks they are new should read the Confessions of St. Augustine,” he said. “His knowledge of sin came from his own inner struggle.”

“Confessions,” written between 397 and 400 A.D., outlines St. Augustine’s sinful youth and his conversion to Christianity. Noting “Confessions” in a public school application is a red flag.

Moore writes about morality discussions in schools. “What happens in these discussions is that teachers open up pre-marital sex, drug use, and other illicit activities as plausible ‘life choices’ so long as students can explain those choices in terms of ‘their own values.’ Predictably, research has indicated that students who are exposed to open-ended discussions of moral issues are far more likely to engage in vice.”

“Vice” is a common word in religious instruction. Moore doesn’t source any “research.” Instead, he cites Christian conservative William Kilpatrick’s controversial 1992 book “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong,” a primer on moral education. Kilpatrick writes that schools have abandoned moral teachings for “decision-making,” also called critical thinking. “When drug education programs are patterned on the decision-making model, the result is increased drug use,” he said. “Sex education programs ... result in increased sexual activity.” Kilpatrick writes about “exchanging opinions and exploring ideas.” Then, “no reason is given why a boy or girl should want to be good.”

ACAD’s executive summary has, “The end goal of a classical education is not just the smart man or woman, but the good man or woman.”

Also, in “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong,” Kilpatrick recommends “The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories” on his book list.

In ACAD’s family handbook, another policy we stumble over is on teaching evolution. “The study of modern biology rests in large part on the theory of evolution ... Although we recognize that there are other explanations of human origins and development, such as Creation or Intelligent Design, we will not devote class time to these and will refer students to their parents.” That “Creation and Intelligent Design,” theories with God as the cause of existence, are mentioned is disconcerting. Why acknowledge this in a public school handbook?

After COVID-19 disruptions, 9-R has its hands full. A new charter school would financially impact the district. If funding goes in that direction, you can believe, something else will be eliminated.

Families want educational choices, not only in Durango but in the Four Corners and beyond. We don’t doubt ACAD’s Core Knowledge academic standards. But ACAD’s application package has enough faith-based mentions – sin, vice, a book with biblical references and creation – to signal conflict in the separation of church and state. Public school is the state in this conversation. To serve all students, this distinction must be clear.