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Progressive Voice: State Should Fund Schools, Not Mandate Religious Signs

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s organization or of ARLnow.com.

Frederico CuraWith Arlington’s school population growth, the need for expanded classroom space has become an important priority.

Throughout the 1990s, Democratic General Assembly candidates ran on a platform of making state funds available to lessen the heavy financial burden of localities facing growing demand for classroom space.

Unfortunately for Arlington, the General Assembly remained under Republican control and state funding for school construction has been kept off the table. Virginia’s Department of Education website reflects this short-sighted policy: “Counties and cities in Virginia are independent political entities of the state (so are school boards that own and maintain their facilities). Therefore public school construction projects are financed through local funds.”

State funding for local school construction makes sense given the significant state educational mandates. But General Assembly Republicans have refused to supplement local classroom construction funding.

As we see now, it is difficult for localities to cut spending, raise taxes, promote economic development, or create debt capacity quickly enough to meet high growth in student population. Availability of the state’s significantly greater resources in times of unusually rapid student population growth would promote high-quality education.

What did the Republican legislators do instead of providing school construction funds?

In God We Trust sign in front of Key Elementary (photo courtesy Frederico Cura)They mandated pushing on the state’s children — of diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs — state-sponsored religion in taxpayer-funded, government-run public schools.

I discovered this when I went to my kids’ elementary school in Arlington and noticed a large prominent sign next to the front door with “In God We Trust” superimposed on an American flag. It felt like a throwback to Cold War efforts to set ourselves apart from the communist Soviet Union.

After some inquiries, I learned that the General Assembly mandated that all public schools in Arlington, and across Virginia, put up that sign. (The words are based on the advice in Proverbs 3:5 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”)

Some may think this isn’t a big issue. Kids may not pay much attention to symbols and tend to adapt to just about anything. But imagine for a moment being a 10 year-old raised Unitarian or Buddhist, or having atheist or agnostic parents, and you see that powerful, patriotic symbol every day when you come to school just before you recite the Pledge of Allegiance. How welcome would that sign make you feel?

We know what most kids want more than anything – to fit in. We want our professional learning communities to be welcoming places where ALL children can maximize their talents and become productive members of society.

What reaction might a student have upon learning in Social Studies class that, unlike other countries, the United States has a separation of church and state, which has worked well for more than 200 years in preventing excessive power abuse? Our Founding Fathers placed a “wall” between church and government because throughout history there had been countless instances of religious persecution by a government and church acting together or in agreement.

Now if you read national news, you’ll see there are Republican-led efforts at many state legislatures to incorporate religion into taxpayer-funded, government buildings and activities including expectedly impartial courts.

Proponents say that the U.S. is meant to be a “Christian nation” and seem happy to misleadingly re-write our Founding Fathers’ intentions. Many efforts go beyond placement of signs and become attempts in the name of “Christian values” to demonize people with whom they disagree.

Republicans may claim that placing signs in public schools are acts of public unity in response to attacks on our homeland in 2001 or point to laws signed by a Republican President in the 1950s Cold War era that made “In God We Trust” the national motto and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

But my hope is that we restore the values enshrined in the Constitution and return as a nation to the motto selected by our Founding Fathers in 1782 for placement on the Great Seal of the United States. From the Latin, “E Pluribus Unum” means “Out of Many, One.” That is a more accurate reflection of our nation as a powerful and diverse people who have found greatness through incredible hard work, optimism and creative spirit of generations of Americans, including countless enterprising immigrants.

Religion should be a personal choice, and not a government-mandate. It would be far more productive and reflective of our traditional core moral values for the Commonwealth to remove the signs and instead prioritize school constructing funding.

Federico Cura is a strategic communication trainer, and social media outreach & grassroots organizing specialist. He spent many years as a K-12 educator teaching Spanish and ESOL, and served on the Arlington County Transportation Commission.

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