The Sound Of Empty Barrels

Leaders of the religious right have put the nation on notice. They are, they claim, determined to dominate the nation's 16,000 public-school boards and breathe the spirit of God back into the classroom. Their boasting has alarmed state school superintendents, alerted teachers unions and sent their ideological opponents, the secular left, to the barricades. But apart from a few local battles-most of them over sex education-there is no evidence that the religious right is capable of capturing the nation's schools.

The latest skirmish occurred last week in New York City, where 288 local school-board seats were up for vote. The issues were volatile enough: condom distribution in the schools and a controversial program to teach sexual and racial tolerance-both of which had provoked a grass-roots rebellion by parents earlier in the year. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, abetted by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, distributed voter guides-as did a coalition of liberals and gay activists. But although the results won't be known for weeks, ennui won the day: more than 90 percent of the eligible voters chose to stay home.

If the religious right really had muscles to flex, their power would show in the churchgoing citadels of the South and Middle West. But in these conservative regions, the biggest problem is an old one-encouraging citizens to serve on local school boards. More important, in the handful of communities where conservative Christians have won working majorities on local school boards, they have done little so far to alter the curriculum.

In Jacksonville, Fla., for example, where conservative Christians hold a 4-3 majority on the county school board, the only significant change has been the introduction of Teen-Aid, a sex-education program that emphasizes abstinence. Planned Parenthood has challenged the program in court and all sides are busy preparing for further jousts. Says Don Buckley, a retired principal who is chairman of the school board: "I am for the school board setting the curriculum, not the Planned Parenthood or the religious right."

In 1990, conservative Christians nearly won control of the 43 school boards in the San Diego metropolitan area. This surprising effort evoked national headlines about "stealth candidates" moving in on public schools. But vigorous counterorganizing by opponents last year blocked further inroads. Today the religious right controls only the local school board in Vista, Calif. So far, members have hotly debated adding a text on "intelligent design" in nature-mild Creationism-but the only real change has been opening board meetings with a religious invocation.

Though they may have aroused passions in only a few dozen local communities, right-wing Christian groups will continue to train local churchgoers in the politics of public education. And why not? This is a democracy and they're entitled to compete for votes. But to date the contenders for the nation's schools are mostly talking tough, with national organizations on either side demonizing each other to raise funds-and sow fear in the populace.