Free school choice would help prevent controversial battles

It’s not often that the classroom style of a high school teacher brings hundreds of people out in the rain to rallies, but that has been the result of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by a California high school student against longtime history teacher James Corbett.

Sophomore Chad Farnan filed the suit, alleging that Corbett’s frequent anti-Christian remarks and liberal political banter amount to a curtailment of students’ religious rights.

In response, about 200 past and current students and fellow faculty members showed up at the Mission Viejo high school last month to rally in support of the teacher. A smaller number of students, including a few people led by a local pastor, held a rally to support the lawsuit.
A sample of Corbett’s classroom comments, which were cited in the legal complaint: “Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies — that’s interfering with God’s work. … When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

Corbett’s supporters claim he uses provocative words to inspire wide-ranging classroom discussion. His detractors respond that he uses his teaching platform as a means to preach his political viewpoints.

Both sides have a point. Corbett does seem to encourage debate even as he uses his pulpit to preach his personal political and religious viewpoints.

The questions at hand: Is this appropriate in a public school classroom? Is it a First Amendment issue?

We don’t think the First Amendment has much to say about a teacher’s in-class behavior. But it hardly seems appropriate to allow a teacher to use his position to indoctrinate students into his personal political and religious message. One conservative constitutional scholar, John Eastman, told a newspaper reporter that a public-school classroom is not a teacher’s “personal soapbox.”

The more liberal ACLU remarked to the Orange County Register that “(i)t is not the job of a public school teacher either to be promoting religion or disparaging religion.”

That seems like sensible, mainstream advice.

We find it ironic that the high school’s assistant principal, Leslie Schuda, told the Orange County Register that the large turnout for the pro- and anti-Corbett rallies “means we’re doing our job in education.” Actually, it suggests the high school, which has not commented on the specifics of the lawsuit and stands behind Corbett as a respected faculty member, might not be doing its job.

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force a public school system to consider whether a teacher lives up to district policy, which requires that staff neither promote a religious viewpoint nor “interfere with the philosophical/religious development of each student in whatever tradition the student embraces.”

According to a newspaper report, district policy also calls on teachers “to ensure that all sides of a controversial issue are impartially presented with accurate and appropriate factual information.”

Corbett’s approach seems to contradict both policies.

We don’t suppose many of the same people defending Corbett’s “rights” here would do so if he were using his classroom to impose fundamentalist Christian views on students. Clearly, a teacher is bound not just by the law, but by the policies of his employer.

We don’t agree with the lawsuit. We don’t think Corbett ought to be fired. We just think school officials should have put some reasonable limits on classroom behavior by its employees — and responded to the controversy by evaluating what happened and enforcing those limits.

This fracas reinforces our view that the best solution to most school issues is a private one. In a system of private choices, parents could send their children to schools that best reflect their political values and educational goals rather than fighting over the controversial techniques of teachers in the taxpayer-funded monopoly school system.

As always, free choice is the best way to solve problems, without rallies and lawsuits.