I was quickly shuffled out, but while I was not allowed to see any curriculum or talk to any teachers, I did get to look into a classroom from the outside and verified that the setup looked exactly like a picture of an Accelerated Christian Education classroom I had seen on Scaramanga’s website.
ACE is a popular Christian home-school curriculum that’s also used in many private schools and publicly funded voucher schools. It’s the most infamous Christian home-school curriculum and for years taught that the Loch Ness monster was real in its attempts to disprove evolution.
Bass discovered that Responsive Ed was founded by Donald Howard, who had also founded ACE. But it wasn’t immediately clear exactly how interconnected these two organizations are.
ACE and Responsive Ed are both headquartered in Lewisville, just 4 miles apart, and staff members appear to rotate between the two organizations.
When I asked Responsive Ed’s Gonzalez about her charter network’s history with Howard and ACE, she said that none of the ACE founders, including Howard, had been associated with Responsive Ed for the past seven or eight years. But I found that five members of Responsive Ed’s current board and leadership group used to work for ACE (also known as School of Tomorrow). Responsive Ed's current CEO, Charles Cook, spent several years in charge of marketing at ACE before he joined Responsive Ed, and he designed the original curriculum that Responsive Ed used.
Raymond Moore, one of Responsive Ed’s earliest principals (at that time Responsive Ed was known as Eagle Charter Schools), explained that while Responsive Ed “took the Christian vernacular out” of ACE curriculum, they still “put in character traits that reflect our values.” He also noted that “almost everyone in the management has been in the ministry.”
Howard expressed this same sentiment about his charter schools in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 1998, saying, “Take the Ten Commandments—you can rework those as ‘success principles’ by rewording them. We will call it truth, we will call it principles, we will call it values. We will not call it religion.” (Hat tip to the Texas Freedom Network and Scaramanga for locating this quote.)
One figure stands out when it comes to revealing the political and religious agenda behind the Responsive Ed charter schools. ACE’s former vice president, Ronald Johnson, founded a curriculum company, Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum, which also ran four public charter schools in Texas. Paradigm’s curriculum teaches abstinence in English class. ChristianBook.com describes the science curriculum as teaching “evolution from a young-earth creationist perspective.” Paradigm’s website also says that the curriculum is “carefully designed to equip high school students to defend their faith” and is being used in public schools in 11 states.
Paradigm and Johnson are closely connected to Responsive Ed. In 2010, Responsive Ed absorbed Paradigm, taking over its schools and replacing its board. Paradigm noted in a press release that this allowed Responsive Ed to “incorporate the PACS system and curriculum across Texas and in other states.” The release described this as “a ‘win-win’ situation for both organizations” because Responsive Ed schools already use a “learning system based on a manual designed and written by Dr. Johnson while he was Vice President of [Accelerated Christian Education].” Before 2010, Responsive Ed and Paradigm operated on the same model, and now Paradigm and Responsive Ed are the same organization.
The release also added that Johnson would continue his role in marketing Paradigm curriculum (now for Responsive Ed) and would train Responsive Ed’s teachers and help design the curriculum used in their schools.
While Responsive Ed attempts to preserve a facade of secularism, on the Paradigm website, Johnson is far more explicit about his goal of subverting charter programs.
Johnson believes the public education system strips students “of access to the foundational Judeo-Christian moral and economic virtues.” Other problems with public education include “sex education classes and distribution of free condoms” and “tolerance of homosexual life-styles and Islam.”
He thinks that school choice is the way to bring “Judeo-Christian values” back into classrooms and cites other right-wing activists including Tim LaHaye, John Hagee, David Barton’s WallBuilders, Jerry Falwell, and Focus on the Family as champions of using education reform to do this.
There’s just one problem. Johnson recognizes that “a major weakness exists in the school choice movement.” Charter schools are still public! These former ACE executives, according to Johnson, are pretending to observe the “so-called ‘separation of church and state’ doctrine” in order to use charter schools like Responsive Ed as a Trojan horse to sneak religion back into public schools.
Will anyone sue to stop them?
I asked Dan Quinn at the Texas Freedom Network about potential remedies to what Responsive Ed is teaching. He said, “These materials lie to students about science, and using them puts the school—and the taxpayers who fund it—at risk of a lawsuit it would almost certainly lose.”
There are more than 17,000 students in Responsive Ed schools, and any one of them, or their parents, could file suit because their constitutional rights have been violated.
Rather than it taking a lawsuit, I hope that legislators will take the appropriate actions to regulate these schools and improve Texas charter policy.
Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education told me, “Some people don't realize that the First Amendment applies to charter schools just as much as to any other public school. Teaching creationism or other sectarian religious claims as if they were science is wrong anywhere, but it's especially bad to use tax dollars to force one person's religion onto school kids.”
I asked Quinn about charter rules in Texas, and he said, “Weak state oversight has long been one of the biggest problems with the charter school system in Texas, and the state simply can't look the other way when a charter tries to skirt the law and undermine the education of their own students.”
I don’t think other charter schools can look away either; Responsive Ed is an internal threat to the charter movement. Rather than educating students, it’s interested in indoctrinating them with one sect of religion. If weak oversight allows Responsive Ed to survive, it makes the entire charter system look bad.
The Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes has published the leading report on the academic effect of major charter operators across the country. The report found that while students who attended Knowledge Is Power Program schools experienced positive academic gains, “Responsive Ed had a significant negative impact on student reading gains and a non-significant effect in math.” (Responsive Ed responded by criticizing the CREDO report, and CREDO issued a response to Responsive Ed’s response.)
Mike Feinberg, a co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, told me that “charter school authorizers should hold Texas charter schools to the highest standards in the realms of academics, financial solvency, and student safety.”
A conservative education reform think tank, the Fordham Institute, suggested that because of low-performing networks like Responsive Ed cited in CREDO’s report, charter authorizers needed to make changes. Fordham called on authorizers to “strengthen … practices” when it came to their responsibility to “renew or not renew the charter school’s contract based on school performance, especially academic performance.”
Texas has capped the number of charters in the state at 300, and when bad charters that teach creationism are allowed to remain in the system, it prevents other charter operators from opening better schools. It’s fundamentally anti-charter to allow Responsive Ed schools to remain in Texas’ program. Responsive Education Solutions must have their charter revoked.
It is clearly past time for Texas to tighten the rules surrounding charters and enforce accountability to prevent any other religious programs from subverting the public education system.
This is a moment of truth for the charter movement and for Texas politicians. Will they support removing from charter programs these schools that break the law?
Correction, Jan. 16, 2014: Two photo captions had incorrect information. The caption of the photo of the ACE headquarters incorrectly stated that it is also an image of the Responsive Ed headquarters. It is not. Additionally, the ACE headquarters is in Lewisville, Texas, not Dallas. A second photo caption identified the image as excerpts from A Patriot's History of the United States. The excerpts are from Responsive Ed workbooks.