Christian Crusade

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MacPherson, legal adviser on Mecham's new campaign for governor, says he joined Burns in objecting to the school's drug program on the grounds that it violated families' right to privacy and free religious practice. School officials say the fundamentalists had a significant impact on the program by establishing a mechanism for parents to withdraw their children from objectionable portions of it.

But Burns felt-- still feels-- that district officials had colluded with Weis and other parents to smear her as an extremist, and she withdrew her child from the school district. MacPherson, Marsh and a few other parents followed suit at about the same time, meaning that many of the district's harshest critics no longer have firsthand contact with what is going on in the schools.

The clash over "Children Are People, Too" ended with the district retaining the drug prevention program essentially intact, Weis says. But it permanently scarred people and friendships (including her family's long-time friendship with Donald and Barbara MacPherson, she says) and left a bitterness waiting to erupt again.

Since Burns withdrew her daughter from school, she says, district administrators repeatedly have rebuffed her attempts to participate on advisory committees. But the election of a third conservative to the five-person school board last fall provided an opening for Burns and other unhappy parents to turn the tables.

The outcasts became the new inner circle revolving around the conservative board members, says Fred Wood, a former ally of board president Lloyd McCormick. The conservatives' new target, according to Wood, was the district's reading and writing curriculum and its libraries.

"They said children were being told to read whatever they wanted to, or not read if they didn't want," Wood says. "These Eagle Forum ladies [Burns and a friend] also claimed there were books with hard-core pornography on our library shelves that kindergarteners and first-graders had access to."

Burns denies advocating censorship, but cites analyses by Eagle Forum researchers that purport to show how some children's books are riddled with subliminal sexual images. "The idea being to get them started early," she says.

When the rhetoric is trimmed away, the conservatives' discomfort with the Glendale reading program, as with the drug program, resides in its departure from rigid teaching guidelines.

The Glendale schools use a combination of techniques to teach reading and writing, and teachers are expected to combine methods creatively to reach each individual child. The program focuses on encouraging children to love the language and make it their own, to experiment and become familiar with expressing their own thoughts. Teachers in the early grades operate by reinforcing what the child is doing right, rather than focusing on mistakes.

Proponents of the Glendale approach define "failure" as a child who thinks of reading as a chore.

As if by instinct, the district's conservatives rally around the opposite approach, the most extreme of which holds that children should not even be exposed to books until they have first memorized 75 "phonograms," or word sounds. Even in a class of beginners, the emphasis in a "phonics-based" program is on learning the rules of language and correcting mistakes of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

"How is a child to learn if they aren't told what is right and what is wrong?" says McCormick, a staunch proponent of the conservative approach. "My daughter is from [such a] program and she reads fine, when she's not being lazy."

TO FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS, the phrase `secular humanism' is more than a buzz word. And its appearance in the debate surrounding Glendale's school drug prevention program signaled the involvement of an important institution in the community, the churches.

Within the large fundamentalist congregations that straddle the Phoenix-Glendale border, secular humanism is both a competing religion and a battle cry.

With parishioners drawn from both Glendale and Phoenix, the churches can influence parental thinking not only in the Glendale school district but in nearby Phoenix school districts. And they have done so, school officials say.

Several years ago, parents in the neighboring Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix sought to ban a basic writing text because they, like the Glendale parents, perceived a threat to the family there, says Sandra Harmon, president of the Arizona English Teachers Association and a former administrator in the Washington district. "This group denied they were religiously motivated, but some of our teachers belonged to the same congregations and heard the sermons blasting our writing program as an invasion of privacy," Harmon says. Among the passages these parents found intolerable were exercises that asked children to write about their siblings or parents, their own problems or what worried them most.

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Kathleen Stanton