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Enslaved by the Bell

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.

"We had 100 percent attendance at our parent conferences," she says proudly. "Why? Because we went to the community. I did a parent conference in the hospital. I even met a dad at Carl's Jr."

Penny Kotterman taught in the Tempe Elementary district with Martin while serving as a teachers' representative for the Arizona Education Association, the state's teachers' union. Now the vice president of the AEA, Kotterman remembers Martin as a hardworking, well-respected educator who was popular among parents--a teacher who knew how to get results.

Many parents requested that their children be placed in Martin's class, recalls Kotterman, who has equally vivid memories of Martin's activities outside the classroom.

"But she was always extremely critical of new teaching techniques," Kotterman says. "Things that I would call 'innovations' she would call 'new-age techniques.' I always remember thinking that she was operating with a good deal of misinformation."

Martin's views seldom were echoed by others within the education establishment, Kotterman adds.

After leaving the classroom, Martin became the co-founder and president of Parents' Foundation for Responsible, Ethical Education (FREE).

In an undated flier mailed to prospective members, Martin wrote that the foundation was launched "to serve as an umbrella for other pockets of resistance . . ." To those who join, she promised to send "materials written by experts in unmasking New Age/Socialist practices" in the classroom.

FREE membership included a free copy of What Are They Teaching Our Children? by Mel and Norma Gabler. For more than two decades, the Gablers have grabbed headlines by making regular treks to Texas Board of Education meetings to challenge the use of any book disparaging creationism--the theory that God created man in his present form--or dealing in depth with the theory of evolution. In 1989, after two decades of debate in which creationists were able to forestall the teaching of evolution, the Texas board finally adopted a requirement that biology textbooks include a section on the theory of evolution.

Another FREE handout implores concerned parents to mobilize in order to rescue their children from "Satan's scheme," which, among other things, calls for man to set up puppet leaders around the world, establish the antichrist and "recruit soldiers for the control and takeover."

The pamphlet goes on to explain that it is "Satan's global plan" to "replace biblical Christianity with a man-made one . . . replace nationalism with globalism . . . prepare man to exist for the good of the state . . . and replace Christianity with the New Age religion as the one unifying world faith."

According to the brochure, social reformers and education pioneers like Robert Owen, who founded the nursery-school movement in Scotland in the early 19th century, and John Dewey, the influential American philosopher and educator, both had a hand in implementing Satan's plan. The pamphlet says both were strong advocates of secular humanism, which many fundamentalists view as an attempt to place man on a par with God.

A section of the FREE pamphlet titled "What Are the Children Learning?" spells out some of the perceived dangers with modern curricula. The pamphlet complains of school texts that make no mention of "church praying in Christian setting"; the absence of traditional families and family roles; "definite feminist postures" in pictures and stories; the depiction of "other" religions and gods; and the censoring of "God's hand in the lives and events of America" in history texts.

The pamphlet lists examples of the "non-directive psychology of choice" rampant in the state's elementary schools. The list, which numbers more than 40 items, includes such pernicious activities as drug education, Arbor Day celebrations, kids' voting, suicide-prevention classes, law education, spelling bees, multicultural education, writing fairs, conflict-resolution classes, sex education and stress-management programs.

After laying out the problems, the FREE pamphlet issues this call to action:
"Reverse the 1963 prayer and Bible ban decision. PRAY! The attitude of the Supreme Court is leaning more to the right now . . . protest in court the unfair treatment of Creation as myth and Evolution as the only viable concept . . . TO SAVE THE CHILD YOU MAY NEED TO REMOVE THE CHILD FROM SCHOOL. THERE ARE GODLY ALTERNATIVES. PRAY!"

The back of the FREE pamphlet lists books that purportedly expose the real agenda of American education. Among the titles are two works by Rousas John Rushdoony, an influential far-right idealogue.

Rushdoony has argued that the Holocaust death toll was grossly inflated "to shock the insensitive" and has called blacks an example of "inferior stock." He has also called for the elimination of public education and has labeled democracy "the great love of the failures and cowards of life."

One-world governments. Shadowy New Age/pagan cabals bent on de-Christianizing a whole generation of American schoolchildren. Some might wonder, what's next? Does Martin expect those ubiquitous black helicopters to appear over Arizona's public schools?

Though many may be tempted to, it would be a mistake to dismiss all of Janet Martin's concerns out of hand. She is, after all, an articulate and educated woman who is as sincere in her beliefs as those who oppose her.

Or at least she was.
Martin has company on all sides of the political spectrum in calling for fundamental school reforms.

Many of Martin's attacks have been on outcome-based education, or OBE, which judges the quality of education by focusing on outputs--on what students learn and on measurable academic results--and which questions the conventional wisdom that education should be judged strictly by what goes into it: effort, time and tax dollars.

Shortly after it was introduced, OBE became all the rage. In 1989, President George Bush convened an "education summit" with all 50 governors. Together, Bush and the governors agreed on six (there are now eight) national goals for education, which came to be known as Goals 2000. So far, 25 states--including Arizona--have drafted OBE-friendly policies.

But once the goals were developed and states began implementing them, a backlash arose among those who saw the new standards as so esoteric as to be immeasurable and meaningless. For example:

* An Ohio graduate should be able to "function as a responsible family member [and] maintain physical, emotional, and social well-being."

* In Pennsylvania, "each student shall have exposure to different cultures and lifestyles."

* In Arizona, a math student should be able to "explore, model and describe patterns and functions involving numbers, shapes, data and graphs" and use "simulations to estimate probabilities."

Criticism of the new approach has come from all sides. In a 1993 newsletter, Phyllis Schlafly, president of the ultraconservative Eagle Forum, said, "OBE [was] converting the three Rs into the three Ds: Deliberately Dumbing Down."

From the opposite end of the spectrum, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and hardly an ally of Schlafly's, told the New York Times in 1993 that "OBE's vaguely worded outcomes . . . encourage business as usual . . . and [do] nothing to raise achievement."

Last February, Colorado's Democratic Governor Roy Romer, a leading figure in the move to set national education standards, told reporters that OBE was not the answer and called instead for a "hard content strategy." A month later, J. Fife Symington III, Arizona's rightward-reeling governor, called on the state Board of Education to reject "trendy" standards in favor of a back-to-basics curricula.

There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate over OBE, which is still a long way from being resolved. And Martin, who has criticized OBE as difficult and expensive to implement and impossible to grade, makes many of the same arguments as OBE's more moderate critics.

But her criticisms and those put forth by other religious fundamentalists only begin there.

In the December/January issue of Educational Leadership, a conservative journal, Robert Simonds, a leading opponent of OBE, charges that the critical-thinking skills touted by OBE's backers mean "teaching children to empty themselves of their own values and accept a suggested set of values."

And in Martin's own writing, she suggests that "it is the belief of . . . secular humanists that there are no absolute standards of right and wrong. A test that deals with attitudes and opinions and the ability to present points of view is an essential tool for the liberal mind set."

Martin has also attacked OBE for its emphasis on building self-esteem in students. In a 1992 article in a Concerned Women for America newsletter titled The Self-Esteem Machine, Martin writes that "people's greatest need is not self-esteem; it is the realization that they are sinners in rebellion against God. . . . Man by nature wants to be free to go his own way. . . . That base drive of mankind is called rebellion. SIN!"

David C. Berliner is a regent's professor of education at Arizona State University who, for seven years, has chronicled the assault of the religious right on the nation's public schools. He lectures widely, and his book on the subject, The Manufactured Crisis, was published last year.

"The fight against OBE is a holy fight," Berliner says, adding that members of the religious right "don't want empowered, uncorrected kids. They don't want to build kids' self-esteem. They want obedient kids. They want the Stepford kids."

Berliner calls Martin's appointment to the board "a slap in the face at public education," a criticism echoed by Kotterman, the AEA representative, and by Renert of the Arizona Citizens Project.

Renert points out that Martin has allied herself with many of the same people who would like to tear down the wall between church and state. Indeed, Beverly LeHaye, the founder of Concerned Women for America, in which Martin has been both a member and an educational consultant, has said that prayer was driven from public schools because of "an imaginary 'wall of separation' conjured by nonbelievers."

When questioned specifically about her writings and the views of some of her contemporaries, Martin says that the ideas she and her allies have professed are simply being taken out of the context of a healthy discussion among like-minded people.

"My letters and my writings have been to my fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord," she says. "They have been to Christian audiences who understand that in 1963, when prayer and Bible were removed from our school, that we lost a lot of our foundational beliefs."

Janet Martin is not the only member of Arizona's school board to profess a desire to see a return to basics. Last May, Symington appointed Felicia Muller, a 34-year-old elementary school teacher, to the board as its teacher representative.

For 12 years, Muller has taught second, fourth and fifth grade at the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the Mesa Unified School District. Symington has held Franklin, which has become widely known for its stripped-down, back-to-basics curriculum, as a model for other schools in the state to follow.

Muller went before the Senate Education Subcommittee for her confirmation hearing on January 16. Democrat Mary Hartley cast the seven-member committee's sole dissenting vote, saying she was bothered by Muller's opposition to introducing elementary students to foreign languages.

Hartley is also wary of Martin, whose confirmation hearing was scheduled for January 30.

"I have a tendency to worry about anyone who doesn't believe, or who allies herself with people who don't believe, in the separation of church and state," Hartley says.

Still, the question remains, what impact will Martin have on the board, and on educational policies in Arizona?

So far, a calm has prevailed. Fellow board member Jim Ullman, an attorney specializing in school law and a moderate on education issues, praises Martin for her willingness to listen to all sides of an argument.

"I may have even managed to convince her of the rightness of my views, once," Ullman adds, declining to elaborate.

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Likewise, Lisa Graham Keegan, the state superintendent of public instruction and another moderate, has praised Martin as "a hardworking board member who . . . is willing to hear all sides of an issue . . ."

But Hartley says she can see problems looming once the board has to contend with such thorny issues as multiculturalism and sex and AIDS education. Fellow Education Committee member and conservative Mesa Republican Senator Rusty Bowers, who, along with Martin, also spoke to the library gathering in May 1994, did not return phone calls.

Though Martin has not specifically addressed vouchers--state funds paid for private-school tuition--in any of her writings, Berliner says that the Christian right's track record on the issue is clear. Symington has been an outspoken advocate of vouchers.

"Any religious fundamentalist sitting on a board of education has a built-in conflict of interest on the vouchers issue," warns Berliner. "As a group, they have traditionally supported vouchers because they are destructive to public education, an institution that they see as fundamentally harmful to children. And if public education improves, then vouchers lose.

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