Enslaved by the Bell

Does the newest member of the state Board of Education really believe that Satan lurks in Arizona classrooms?

It is May 1994. A standing-room-only crowd, mostly parents, filters into the auditorium of a library in north Scottsdale. They have come to hear a presentation about the state of their children's education.

The evening's keynote speaker is Janet Martin, a former elementary school teacher and conservative educational activist.

Martin, looking prim and businesslike in a green silk blouse, beige blazer and skirt, takes the podium. She is a pleasant-looking woman with short, curly brown hair, and she has lots to say this evening, beginning with what she describes as the excessive social burdens foisted on public schools.

"There has been a move away from teaching and a move toward what some people call 'therapy,'" she explains. "People say 'Johnny needs new glasses' or 'Johnny needs shoes' or 'Johnny didn't get a good breakfast this morning.' And more and more, the schools are being required to take up the slack."

Martin slaps a transparency onto the overhead projector. This is what appears on the screen behind her: "Atheism + Paganism = Socialism."

"A government that is based on atheism and paganism becomes socialistic," she explains. "It shifts away from the family, away from the rights of a free-enterprise system that has made this country great, towards a government that is supposed to take care of all our needs."

Others saw a far more ominous message on the screen. One of those was Jann Renert, a founding member of Arizona Citizens Project, a group founded in 1993 in response to what Renert and her friends saw as the encroachment of religious dogma into Arizona's schools. The group publishes a newsletter, Light on the Right.

Renert recalls how she felt that night.
"It was clear to us that anyone who did not believe in her brand of Christianity was an atheist or a pagan," says Renert, who is Jewish. "Some of us thought the message was pretty hurtful."

In the nearly three years since first encountering Janet Martin, Renert and her allies have built a thick dossier chronicling Martin's activities and allegiances, including beliefs that modern educators are abetting "Satan's scheme," that creationism should be taught in public schools and that parents should remove their children from public schools in favor of "godly alternatives." Martin has also cited the works of outspoken Holocaust revisionists.

Documentation of Martin's viewpoints has been made easier thanks to Martin's willingness to commit her ideas, many of which can charitably be described as extreme, to paper.

Yet today, Janet Martin is an unconfirmed member of the Arizona Board of Education, which sets policies that determine the curriculum Arizona's public school students are taught. She was appointed to the seat by Governor J. Fife Symington III in August.

One scholar who tracks the religious right calls Martin's appointment "a slap in the face" for public educators.

But Martin has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate. And as her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee looms, Martin seems intent on distancing herself from the ultraconservative agenda she once so fervently espoused.

"We are human beings and we are fallible, and we are capable of change," she tells New Times. "So the things that have been written from a hard, hard, hard-sounding right are not me. And that's all I can say."

Which means Martin either has become a born-again moderate, eager to erase years of activism, or is simply masquerading as one to make her confirmation less contentious.

Is she a former zealot newly clothed in tolerance? Or a political chameleon, willing to renounce her beliefs in exchange for an unpaid position on the state Board of Education?

Janet Martin came to Arizona in 1969, six years after graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington with a bachelor's degree in education.

Her father was a doctor, her mother a teacher. Martin describes them as "hardworking Christians" who had endured the Depression and who drummed the values of self-reliance and education into their four children from an early age. Though her Indiana Baptist upbringing was strict, Martin says, it was not unpleasant.

"There was a lot of love," she remembers. "Our family had a big, round kitchen table, and whenever one of us kids came home with extra friends, Mom would say, 'No problem.' We were the center of family, the center of activity for the neighborhood."

In 1972, after three years of graduate work in special education at the University of Arizona, Martin, her husband and her two young sons moved to Tempe. Shortly after the move, Martin and her husband divorced, leaving her to care for the boys.

"I've been a single mom for 23-plus years," she says, "so I know what it's like to struggle, to live in crisis. I know what it's like not to have enough money, to use my grocery list as a prayer list and say, 'Oh, Lord, would you please provide me with these things.' And He has always provided."

After a series of short teaching stints with parochial schools, Martin went to work for the Tempe Elementary School District in 1976. In 1992, she was forced to leave the classroom because of health problems. Martin passionately recounts her teaching career.

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