Students in Minnesota public high schools soon could earn credit for courses that teach the Bible or the Qur'an as infallible truth under a proposal now before the Legislature.
If approved, the measure would allow public school students to take up to one-third of all their credits at private schools, with public school districts having the option of accepting those credits for graduation.
A group of Alexandria-area residents is pushing the legislation, inspired by the teachings of Ken Ham, an Australian-born evangelist who founded the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, two Christian-themed attractions in Kentucky.
The group is promoting the idea of "supplemental" schools as a way to keep kids enrolled in public schools while offering classes that support the religious beliefs of students and their families.
Any other religious group or private school could take advantage of the law, if it's approved.
But many educators are skeptical, saying the legislation would make it almost impossible for public schools to know and monitor what their students are learning while in private schools.
"Hypothetically, [students] could take their reading, math and science at a nonpublic school and so could graduate from our school without ever taking a core class from us," said Julie Critz, Alexandria's superintendent of schools. "If you don't accept the credit, likely the private school is going to challenge you in court. If you do accept the credit and it is religious in content, then you will be challenged from the other side.
"We do not want to be placed in the middle."
But proponents say it's an idea they hope catches on nationwide.
"The idea of a supplemental school is an important social and educational benefit," said Brent Smith, an Alexandria businessman and board chairman of the NorthStar Christian Academy.
The supplemental private school held its first classes last fall in a four-classroom building across the street from Alexandria's $73 million public high school, which opened in 2014.
"The kids can be taught some of the things that align with the values of the parents who are able to pay, and then go back to the public school," Smith said.
'The ultimate local control'
The proposal has the backing of key Republican leaders in the Senate and is part of an omnibus education bill that's scheduled for a hearing next week.
At a recent Education Policy Committee hearing, supportive senators compared the idea to other educational alternatives offered in Minnesota, such as the Postsecondary Enrollment Option (PSEO), which allows high school students to earn graduation credit for college classes.
Their support isn't based solely on educational objectives, according to Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, the committee chair. Parents "might want someone more aligned with their values" teaching classes in subjects such as history and geography, he said.
Added Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids: "We talk about local control. In my mind, the ultimate local control is the family unit."
That view conflicts with long-standing education policies, said Josh Collins, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
"It would be in direct conflict with what the Legislature requires: that districts are to be teaching to the state standards, which are based in research and fact, and are vetted in a very public process with educators and scientists and historians," Collins said. While the bill's supporters promote the value of faith in a well-rounded education, the two-page bill says that private school classes must be nonsectarian. But it offers no definition of the term, Critz said.
"What does that mean?" she said. "Is the course all about religion? Is it OK to have a tiny piece of it promoting a religion or a belief?
"If it's a science class, and intelligent design is one of the beliefs that is taught, is that considered nonsectarian? Those things need to be clarified in the Legislature, not in the local community."
At the recent Senate hearing, two officials of NorthStar Christian Academy testified that they would make sure their school meets all standards for a nonpublic school if the bill passes.
That could require a shift in the school's philosophy, which teaches students to view the world through "a Biblical lens" to help them "stay on course with Jesus throughout life's journey," according to the school's student handbook.
"It is time to help our students ... look at the compelling scientific, historical and philosophical truths in support of the Biblical worldview," the handbook says.
Jaci Loween, NorthStar Christian Academy's curriculum director, addressed the school's approach to learning in a video on the academy's website.
"It means looking at topics from a variety of points of view and lining them up against what we know is biblical and what we know is true," she said. "It's about bringing the Gospel to a place it can't be brought to."
One hour vs. 30
Smith, the academy's chairman, said the creation of supplemental schools will help support public schools and promote unity in the community.
"If the public school is going to remain the educational hub, if everyone who has an issue pulls their children out to go to a stand-alone [private] school, look at the divide we're going to have," he said.
Under the proposal before legislators, the public schools would keep all the state per-pupil money they'd normally get. Students taking private classes would pay tuition.
"We're huge supporters of the public school," Smith said. "We don't want to make the public school damaged by this."
The key issue, Smith said, is exposing students to values that can't be taught in public schools.
"There are laws that prevent our public schools from having those discussions of values and world views," he said. "You can do that in Sunday school. But you're talking one hour a week.
"In the schools, you have the students for 30 hours of instructional time. We felt it was in the best interest of our students to have more hours.
"They're in an environment where they can pursue truth," Smith said. "You can't do that in the public school."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402