If you want to send your kid to a free, publicly funded school with a Christian flavor, you’ve got plenty of options in Texas. There’s no shortage of charter schools in the state with superintendents who double as pastors, or with classroom space leased from churches.
And that’s all totally kosher with the state, so long as they follow the same rules that any other public school must obey: no endorsing any religion over another—no endorsing religion at all, in fact—and the Bible can only be taught as a literary text, alongside supplemental books to put it into context.
But watchdogs say the Shekinah Learning Institute, a 15-campus charter school chain based outside San Antonio, has blown that nuance all to hell, using taxpayer money to fund church operations, inviting speakers with Christian messages and offering religious Bible study and chapel services to students.
In a series of letters to the Texas Education Agency since February, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has complained that even Shekinah’s name—a Hebrew word to describe God’s presence—and its cross-and-shield logo amount to an endorsement of religion.
Americans United publicized its complaints in the June issue of its magazine, and the San Antonio Current picked up the news, noting that the TEA is already investigating Shekinah’s finances. That, in turn, has prompted national media attention from the likes of the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo.
A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on specifics of the agency’s audit last Friday, saying only that it should be finished in a few weeks. To judge by how long they’ve been working on it, the audit has been quite an undertaking—it’s been more than a year since San Antonio’s WOAI-TV reported that the TEA was investigating how the school’s superintendent had been spending public money.
Whether or not religious complaints will be part of that audit, Shekinah has already responded that the in-school player and chapel service were isolated problems at the Shekinah Radiance Academy Truth Campus east of Dallas. “[Shekinah] did not promote school-sponsored chapel services or other religious activities; did not offer or promote any weekly Bible-study class.” The school said they’d put an end to the practice, which they said had been going on without administrators’ knowledge.
But Americans United isn’t buying the notion this was just some rogue campus. But in a follow-up letter to the TEA in April, Americans United suggested a more pervasive religious conflict with the schools. “Americans United found that six of Shekinah Radiance Academy’s campuses seem to be in buildings that are also home to active congregations, including two churches whose names are almost identical to those of the campuses they house,” AU lawyer Gregory Lipper wrote. “This fusion of education and religion epitomizes a parochial school, not a public institution funded by taxpayer dollars.”
Lipper also mentions the school’s 2010 graduation speaker at the Christian World Worship Center in San Anotnio, who gave a speech entitled, “God’s Exciting Plans For YOU.” According to the speaker’s own promotional site, he “footstomped faith as a fundamental prerequisite to living an abundant life.”
Two of Shekinah’s nine campuses were rated unacceptable by the state in 2011. All of them, though, were on the state’s Alternative Education Accountability measure, a designation given to schools with a large proportion of tough-to-educate students that gives them a lower hurdle to clear.
Cheryl Washington, the New Yorker who moved to San Antonio and founded Shekinah in 1996, hasn’t exactly been shy about her religious motivations. In an amazing appearance on the San Antonio radio program Rhema Gospel Express in January, Washington and the host freestyle for a bit about God, blood and DNA. And then Washington says this: “He has given me jurisdiction to operate with Dominion in San Antonio. … The power that God has given me, not only to call and name things here and put them into operation, He has given me the administrative gifts to manage that garden. And that garden for me seems to be the education system that He has me in.”