Does a Texas Charter School Chain Use Taxpayer Money to Proselytize Students and Fund a Church?
This story originally appeared in Church & State, the magazine published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Sign up for their e-mail newsletter here.
Dr. Cheryl A. Washington, superintendent of a group of taxpayer-funded charter schools in Texas, says her mission is to "leave her children an inheritance."
But what exactly does she mean by that?
"I know it's part of my nature to bust a move and take a risk," she said during a radio interview with Rhema Gospel Express. "So what's in me, when it's imparted into the youth that I serve, then they become those future entrepreneurs that will not be afraid to take a risk…and know that they can do all things through Christ."
Washington came to San Antonio in 1987 and founded the Shekinah Learning Institute in 1996. She told Rhema Gospel Express that God directed her into education, so she founded her network of public charter schools. There are now more than a dozen campuses in the Lone Star State, most of them in or around San Antonio.
The schools had a cumulative budget in 2010-2011 of at least $12.63 million, according to documents on Shekinah's website. Some 2,500 "at-risk" students are enrolled, and Washington earns $250,000 annually, according to WOAI, the NBC affiliate in San Antonio.
Washington is also the pastor of Shadrach Temple International Church, a Universal City, Texas, congregation affiliated with Ohio preacher Rod Parsley's World Harvest Ministerial Alliance. She said during the interview with Rhema Gospel Express that running schools is "a divine assignment."
It's no surprise, then, that an ongoing investigation conducted by Americans United suggests that the Shekinah Radiance Academy -- including its Truth Campus, a school located in the Dallas suburb of Royse City -- operates as if it were a publicly funded religious institution.
Evidence gathered as of press time indicated that the school promoted weekly chapel services, offered weekly Bible study classes and used a religious name and logo, all of which could be violations of the Constitution's First Amendment.
In Feb. 27 letters to Washington and the Texas Education Agency, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper detailed the constitutionally problematic behavior and demanded that these activities stop.
On the Truth Campus's website, Lipper notes, the organization said it is a public school that is "100% funded by the state of Texas." Yet Americans United found that the school offers an optional weekly chapel service for its students. A promotional video on the website featured parents explaining how the chapel services teach students "about all the wonderful things that God is doing for them in their lives." (The Truth Campus website has since been removed from the Internet.)
The AU letters note that devotional activities at a public school are violations of the First Amendment.
"In promoting religious chapel services," wrote Lipper, "Truth Campus is violating the U.S. Supreme Court's command that the [First Amendment] prohibits public schools from sponsoring religious activities, including prayer services, whether they are led by school personnel or by third parties."
The AU attorney also dispelled the myth that the services would be permissible if part of a "release time" program, which is a Supreme Court-sanctioned scheme whereby public schools can allow students to leave the campus during the day for religious instruction elsewhere.
"Truth Campus's promotion of religious services is unconstitutional even if the services themselves take place during 'release time,'" the AU letters said. "Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have reiterated that 'release time' does not cure otherwise impermissible public school endorsement of religious services."
A second major issue uncovered by Americans United is school-sponsored Bible classes. The school's website promoted "a study through James" for 45 minutes on Mondays, telling students to "bring a Bible and a notepad starting February 6th."
By offering a class of this type and asking students to bring only "a Bible and a notebook," Lipper said the school appears to be teaching the religious text from a sectarian viewpoint rather than an academic one.
The third major constitutional issue identified by Americans United is the school's name and logo. The AU letter noted that the Hebrew word "shekinah" means "God's presence," and the term is used by rabbis "in place of 'God' where the anthropomorphic expressions of the Bible were no longer regarded as proper." As for the logo, it looks to be a cross over top of a shield.
"A public entity such as Truth Campus endorses religion when it adopts a religious name or logo," the letters said.
In April, thanks to additional investigation and information revealed through a public records request, Americans United sent a second letter to the state agency to ask that it expand its investigation of Shekinah to include the religious activities of the entire Shekinah Radiance Academy system.
In the April 4 missive, Lipper described additional problems with Shekinah not mentioned in the original letter, including campuses that appear to be located in church buildings and a graduation ceremony held in a church and featuring a proselytizing guest speaker.
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.
For example, the Abundant Life Campus is at the same address as the Abundant Life Church in San Antonio. AU also uncovered evidence that Shekinah held at least one graduation ceremony at the Christian World Worship Center, which is also home to another Shekinah campus, and that the speaker at the ceremony in 2010 delivered a speech titled "God's Exciting Plans for You."
"Even if the Academy and its churches were generally separate," wrote Lipper, "the [First Amendment] would prohibit its campuses from holding classes or events in churches."
Also outlined in the letter were numerous accusations of impropriety by Washington, which were uncovered thanks to AU's review of complaints to the Texas Education Agency. The complaints alleged that Shekinah and Washington have "unlawfully used taxpayer funds and deployed government employees to support religious activities at Superintendent Washington's church."
Among the allegations were the following:
All of these activities would be serious violations if true.
"Both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit the Academy from providing favorable treatment -- including higher salaries -- to employees who are members of the Superintendent's church," the letter said.
As of press time, the Texas Education Agency told Americans United that it is wrapping up an investigation into Shekinah's financial activities but declined to go into details. The agency also responded to AU's complaints within weeks of receiving the letters and said that it would begin to look into Shekinah's religious activities.
Although Shekinah claims that the agency has cleared it of these accusations, it also opposes the state's release of documents from the actual investigation.
Lipper said that Americans United is continuing to provide new information to the agency as it becomes available.
Shekinah, meanwhile, attempted to defend itself -- by blaming the Truth Campus for essentially going rogue. In an April 10 letter to the Texas Education Agency, attorneys for the school did not completely deny AU's allegations; instead they claimed that Shekinah either was not aware of Truth Campus's religious activities or didn't authorize them.
"[Shekinah] did not promote school-sponsored chapel services or other religious activities; did not offer or promote any weekly Bible-study class; and the logo for all Shekinah Radiance Academy campuses is a dove with olive branch, a non-religious and accepted symbol of peace," the letter said.
Shekinah's attorneys went on to claim that all of the issues raised by Americans United occurred without Shekinah's knowledge. For example, the charter school claimed that the "Landlord and Affiliates" of Truth Campus were solely responsible for all of the school's Web content.
"Landlord and Affiliates appear to have operated and maintained this website without the authorization or consent of [Shekinah], and even went so far as to post official school documents on the website," the letter said. "This content was not produced or posted to the website with consent of [Shekinah]."
The religious logo at Truth Campus can also be blamed on -- you guessed it -- the school's landlord and affiliates, who acted "without [Shekinah]'s authorization." Shekinah even denied that its name is religious, saying that Shekinah means "to settle, inhabit, or dwell."
Lipper flatly rejected that argument.
"The most common understanding of the word is clearly religious in nature," he said, "and that understanding is confirmed by Shekinah's ongoing promotion of religion."
Shekinah's overall argument didn't pass muster with Lipper, either.
"Shekinah claims that, as to the promotion of religion at its Truth Campus, its landlord 'went rogue' and set up a website and created promotional videos (documenting religious promotion) -- all without any knowledge or involvement by Shekinah," he said. "That is extremely hard to believe. And if it's true, it's in some ways even more troubling, because it would mean that Shekinah is putting its head in the sand when taxpayer money is misspent."
Church-state problems such as those at Shekinah are becoming all too common. Thanks in part to bipartisan backing (including the support of President Barack Obama), charter schools -- public schools operated outside the traditional public school system by private contractors or other organizations -- are growing rapidly in the United States. But with that increase -- and less than adequate governmental oversight -- comes an increase in the number of schools with constitutional problems. (See "Charter For Controversy")
Washington has not only defended charter schools -- she has even advocated for Texas to allow for more. In 2009, she testified at a hearing before the Texas Senate's Education Committee, seeking elimination of the state cap on the number of such schools.
"The mounting demand for charter schools shows they are effective, and that our Texas communities need, and want, options within the public school system," she said. (Legislators ultimately ignored Washington and didn't raise the cap.)
Washington is not the most credible source on the virtues of charters. WOAI did an investigative report on her in May 2011, including interviews with several former employees of Shekinah schools who raised troubling allegations.
"Washington is using public funds and probably state and federal funds for her own personal use," a complainant told the TV station.
Washington eventually responded to the accusations, saying she was not aware of any inappropriate spending on her part.
The WOAI investigation revealed that Washington is not actually a doctor. She claims to have two degrees, one from World Mission Outreach Bible College and the other from World Vision University, but neither institution is accredited, according to the TV station.
When asked by WOAI why she goes by "doctor," Washington replied, "Why not?" She added that she is "a doctor in the Christian community."
Washington may be a doctor in the Christian community, but it appears her credentials as a public school supervisor are a lot less impressive.
Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Charter schools are funded by the taxpayers, and they must be accountable to the public. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, must obey the Constitution."