D.C. public charter scraps plan to offer courses from evangelical university
One class would have taught ‘biblical’ approach to speech writing
A D.C. public charter school network scrapped plans to award Liberty University a contract to offer online courses to high school students, including a class that would have taught them how to “apply a biblical perspective” to speech writing.
Friendship Public Charter School published a notice about the contract with the evangelical Christian university in a community newspaper and on its website in early February. But after The Washington Post on Tuesday asked about the courses the charter school planned to offer through the university, Friendship said it had nixed the plans altogether.
In a statement released Friday, Friendship spokeswoman Candice Burns said that after they received and reviewed the textbooks and other materials Tuesday, the charter system decided not to proceed with the contract.
“It was not a fit for what we needed,” Burns said.
Charter schools have more autonomy than traditional public schools to decide their curriculum and whom they hire to provide courses. But the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees Friendship and other charters in the District, says religious curriculums cannot be offered or taught at charters.
“Public charter schools must follow the same legal requirements regarding religious instruction as traditional public schools,” the charter board states on its website.
The board did not respond to several requests for comment.
Many high schools across the country partner with universities to offer courses to students for college credit. And public schools can offer college courses through private religious universities so long as the content of the courses is not based on religion, said Charles C. Haynes, vice president of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.
That was not the case in at least one of the courses that Friendship wanted to offer its students.
The courses under consideration were screenwriting, graphic design and speech. According to Liberty’s website, students enrolled in the speech course learn a foundation for developing communication skills, including speaking before audiences and small groups, and in other conversations.
It also states that the learning outcomes for the course include the ability to “apply a biblical perspective to topics such as the natural world, human identity and relationships, and culture and civilization.”
The textbook used in the class is “Speech Communication: A Redemptive Introduction,” which the publishing company says “helps Christian college students develop a Biblical understanding of communication and challenges them to apply it to their intended occupations in a way that makes a redemptive difference in the world.”
The course material and descriptions on Liberty’s website for the graphic design and screenwriting courses make no reference to religion.
The charter network has asked Liberty to remove its name as a partner school from its website.
Liberty University did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Friendship is the secondlargest charter system in the District, with more than 4,200 students enrolled at its 12 campuses during the 2015-2016 school year.
Burns said that as part of the early-college program, students have taken courses at the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Maryland, Harvard University and Georgetown.
Friendship wanted to give its students more course options, so the network was considering “several online resources that of fer a rolling admissions schedule . . . such as Liberty University Online,” Burns said.
“We are currently examining instructional materials from several schools to determine the best options for our students,” she added.
The notice Friendship published in the community newspaper Northwest Passages stated that the charter system intended to enter into a sole-source $30,000 contract with Liberty. Burns said that “posting a procurement notice does not obligate an organization. It is, however, a necessary step in the procurement process.”
Burns said the charter system considered Liberty no different from other religious-affiliated schools such as Georgetown or Trinity. But Haynes, with the Religious Freedom Center, said that the difference is in the content, and that Liberty often infuses its courses with religious teachings.
“I would be very surprised if there were many courses at Liberty that were taught without a religious perspective,” Haynes said. “Any public school that looked at this would know that upfront. That’s not a hidden thing.”
Haynes commended Friendship for vetting the curriculum before offering the courses to its students.
“It would have been unconstitutional,” Haynes said. “It’s a good thing it was stopped.”