Publicly Funding Christianity/Discrimination in Memphis City Schools?

How entrenched in religion are some public school districts, despite Constitutional limits? It appears that some not only proselytize to their employees but also might let discriminatory programs run their recruitment agencies.

Sometimes I run across news stories that make me want to learn more. First, principals leading students in prayer at school events in East Tennessee. Then the state legislature passing an anti-evolution bill. Then I ran across a story about Memphis City School teachers being led in prayer at a church hosting a teacher training session, and then I found that some of the school’s state funding could possibly be going towards teacher recruitment programs that discriminate on the basis of religion.

Legislation and East Tennessee aside, the state of Memphis City Schools appears to be unnoticed or unchallenged. An article in 2010 told of a school training session hosted for free by a local mega-church:

Memphis City Schools teachers converged at Bellevue Baptist Church on Tuesday for their first pep talk of the year.

Supt. Kriner Cash stood under a “Jesus” banner that hung from the sanctuary ceiling, while his image ricocheted rock-concert style on giant screens as he described his vision for the school year to several thousand teachers….

After a prayer by associate pastor Drew Tucker including Bellevue’s creed (“to share Jesus and make disciples”), the school superintendent asked for a moment of silence for the city’s children.

Search engines led to a number of practices, connections, and programs of the school system, but one article that stood out was “Christians commit to teaching in city schools to bring glory to God.” The article from May of this year states:

Like Teach for America and the Memphis Teaching Fellows, MTR seeks to recruit, train and support outstanding urban educators in Memphis. What makes MTR different is its mission to do that “within a Christian context.”

MTR recruits and accepts only candidates who believe that teaching in large, urban public schools systems is a Christian calling, not just a career.

The program, Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), is a nonprofit program under the umbrella of Urban Teacher Residency United (UTRU) which is funded in part by the Gates Foundation. The programs seem beneficial to our nation’s struggling inner city schools–after all, keeping qualified, caring, and trained teachers in low-income areas is often seen as a challenge.

But, as the article said, MTR is different than many of the urban teacher residency programs in its mission of recruiting those with a “Christian calling” and providing classes through Christian university Union University.

One wonders if those accepted into the program are admitted in compliance with all applicable laws regarding equal employment that MTR and MCS agreed to upon MTR being awarded a $1.4 million First to the Top grant(1):

One would especially wonder how MTR could possibly be fulfilling this end of their contract when their own, pre-application disclaimer is taken into account:

“MTR accepts residents who exhibit these qualities and thus their potential to be outstanding urban educators, regardless of religion, race, or gender.

Furthermore, as these dispositions would support, MTR does require healthy and respectful participation in all aspects of curriculum (both educational and spiritual).”

I can’t say for certain what MTR means by a “healthy and respectful participation in all aspects of curriculum (both educational and spiritual). However, in the context of their mission statement, beliefs, and program requirements, it seems as though they mean that participants should hold a certain religious view over others:

We believe, that all students can learn and all students – as those made in the image of God – have amazing potential for a life… potential for spiritual and emotional success; and potential for living this life with purpose.


In addition to providing technical educational training, the MTR believes in the value of speaking to the whole person; and, therefore, provides a year-long, Biblically-based series of courses, discussions, and speakers to offer a Christian worldview in all aspects of the Resident’s life.

And because teacher training programs are so important, especially those training teachers for the trying job of going into low-income, inner city schools, we would like to think that Union University and MTR, after receiving public funds to expand their Christian teacher recruitment program, would not actually discriminate against non-Christian teachers by doing something like….asking potential residents to reveal their religion on the application

With MTR’s stated goals and beliefs, could they award their grant to any aspiring educator who happened to select something other than “Christian?” Is it following its contract to not discriminate against any person on the basis of religion?

Is the grant money well-spent on this program, anyway? Some in Memphis appear to be confused as to why a school system that is overstaffed–beginning the 2011 school year with over 500 unplaced teachers–is widening its applicant pool.

“Why would Memphis City Schools pay Teach for America $4,000 and MTR $1.4 million to staff schools in this district that we are able to do ourselves,” Williams said.

MTR is a teacher certification program for candidates who commit to complete one-year master’s degrees and then teach three years in Memphis City Schools.

The $1.4 million program is funded from Tennessee First to the Top funding. That money comes from the Federal Government’s Race to the Top competition.

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K. Mason

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08 2011