Common Ground Thinking

Why Common Ground Thinking Works

How one community discovered it’s not only what you debate but how you debate that matters!

By Wayne Jacobsen

This article appeared in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Educational Leadership

You have to admire their courage. Instead of following the conventional wisdom that says issues with religious overtones are best brushed aside because they provide no win/win solutions, Modesto City Schools faced theirs head-on with surprising results.

The trouble began when Modesto City Schools, a district serving over 33,000 students in Central California, included ‘sexual orientation’ in a new tolerance statement. Convinced that their current policies were insufficient to address the needs of their growing community, the district set out to craft new policies guaranteeing an environment free of discrimination and harassment for all students and staff.

When administrators returned from a Bay area conference sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network in San Francisco protests broke out. Critics accused the district of using the public schools to promote homosexuality and that the new policy would require sensitivity training by gay activists.

Rather than scuttle the policy or ignore the critics, administrators and school board members decided to help their community tackle one of the most divisive issues of our day. Through a common ground approach to social issues, Modesto Schools found that not only could they do it, but they could make their community stronger in the process.

It’s Not Just About Bible Reading And Prayer Anymore…

We’re all familiar with the advice not to discuss politics or religion with our friends, much less talk about politics and religion in a community of strangers. But many districts are discovering that they cannot ignore religious issues and hope to provide a fair educational environment.

The 1963 Supreme Court decision outlawing state-sponsored school prayer and Bible reading in public schools fundamentally changed how our society deals with religious issues. It ended the almost 200 years of governmental preference for Protestant Christianity and by doing so ushered in an era of increasing tension between religious conservatives and public education. In the ensuing years further court cases, the association of the education establishment with many liberal social causes and many misapplications of the doctrine of the separation of church and state have caused numerous conflicts.

More recently falling test scores, controversial reform initiatives and the campaign for school choice have extended the concerns of the religious community far beyond prayer and Bible reading to virtually every area of school curriculum and policy. The chart below shows the four basic concerns many religious parents have with public education and the practical impact they can have on various segments of school life.

1. Fear of Indoctrination a. in liberal politics
b. in alternative religions
c. in an anti-religious world order
2. Fear of losing control of their child’s future a. technology
b. psychological comments
3. Fear of alienating children from religious faith a. schools as ‘religion free’ zones
b. creation vs. evolution
4. Fear the ‘dumbing down’ of curriculum a. innovation over basics
b. educational fads and jargons
c. resent unmotivated/undisciplined students

These concerns should not be dismissed as irrational or politically motivated. The transition from a religious-based society to a neutral one has not gone smoothly. In the process, religious faith has been trivialized by society’s institutions according to Stephen Carter (A Culture of Disbelief) and school curricula has unnecessarily ignored religious solutions for societal ills and substituted purely secular ones, according to Warren A. Nord (Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma).

It is easy to see why many in the Christian community view the court actions of the last 35 years as a national repudiation of their faith. Religious pluralism did not emerge from public debate and legislative action, but by lawsuit and court decision. Though it does provide a fair platform for our diverse society, no one has helped our society understand or appreciate religious neutrality in public education. In other words, while the case has been made in the courts, it has not been made in the living rooms or school houses of America.

But in the last five years a new platform has emerged that provides a basis for school districts to navigate through religious issues and find solutions that can actually bring communities closer together. In 1994 The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University published Finding Common Ground, edited by educator Dr. Charles Haynes and legal consultant Oliver Thomas. Working with legal advisors from education groups as well as those from advocacy groups on the left and the right they helped forge a consensus that clarifies what religious liberty means and how it can be implemented successfully in public education.

This common ground thinking provides a legal and historical map through the mine fields of the so-called culture wars. Unfortunately many school districts don’t even know it exists, or if they do, how to utilize it to disarm conflicts in their district. Modesto found out just in time.

The Modesto Model

Even though Modesto City Schools was well into their Safe Schools Project before they found out about common ground thinking, the decisions they made from the start are the same ones I encourage districts to embrace whether they are working through new policies, or helping to heal old conflicts.

1. Face issues head on. Instead of running from controversy, Modesto made the choice to make their schools safe and work with the concerns of their community. In March of 1997 the Board of Education adopted a Statement of Principles that would provide the basis for a safe school environment.

2. Invite all the stakeholders. To implement that policy the Board appointed a committee chaired by Associate Superintendent Sharon Burnis, that would eventually number 115 people, including 11 students and 33 community members. They were drawn from the broadest cross-section of the community, including conservative religious leaders. While it is always risky to work with such a large and politically diverse committee, the failure to include representation from every constituency will always backfire with charges of unfairness and lead to greater community conflict.

Meeting in the late spring of 1997 and into early fall, the committee, true to the fears of many, became mired in political conflict. Progress had all but stopped and it looked as if the hope of community consensus was going to be thwarted. That’s when some of the staff had their first exposure to common ground thinking at a workshop in Sacramento presented by the First Amendment Center.

3. Get training. Hopeful that common ground thinking would give new direction to their district, Modesto invited Dr. Charles Haynes to present a common ground workshop for the committee. In preparation for that training, Superintendent James Enochs wrote to the committee. “(This workshop) is at once a means of bringing people to a common starting point, despite their previous differences, and a means of proceeding with a civic framework.”

The training did not disappoint. Later, participants cited that workshop as having saved the process and as having provided the framework for them not just to find consensus, but unanimity. How did that happen? According to Dr. Haynes, “Everyone agreed that no student should be harassed or discriminated against in a public school whatever his or her race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. And, just as important, everyone acknowledged that such agreement doesn’t require ‘acceptance’ of the religion, philosophy or lifestyle of others.”

They had found common ground. To reflect that shared understanding the committee recommended changing the name of the policy from “Principles of Tolerance, Respect and Dignity, to “Principles of Rights, Responsibility and Respect.” It passed unanimously.

4. Formulate and approve policy. The impetus of their common ground workshop allowed them to do in the next two months what they had not been able to do in the previous six. They drew up guidelines and standards to implement the Statement of Principals and reported them to the board with the unanimous approval of all 115 members of the committee. The school board approved the committee’s guidelines and they are now being implemented successfully.

Community members of the committee also helped provide a bridge to their various constituencies, helping them understand the process and why the final document is in the best interest of parents, students and staff.

5. Train staff and community to understand the process. In the fall of 1998 I was in Modesto helping to train their certificated managers in common ground thinking and found people committed to learning how to implement it on every school site and in staff relationships with parents and members of the community. All secondary teachers had already be in-serviced by The First Amendment Center, and the elementary teachers were scheduled for the same workshop in the spring of 1999.

What Common Ground Thinking Does

Common ground thinking does not offer solutions to the divisive issues that confront our society, but that is its strength. What it does provide is a way for people to work together with those differences. Specifically, it accomplishes five things:

1. Common ground thinking removes educators from arbitrating social conflicts. For too long, advocacy groups have tried to utilize the vast resources and access of public education to advance their social agendas. Prior to 1963, that was weighted toward the Judeo-Christian ethic. After 1963 secularists gained the upper hand. No wonder conflicts continue to emerge and it is easy to understand why educators who face so many academic challenges and behavioral issues resent being asked to also referee the culture wars.

But they don’t have to. In fact, doing so is to become something less than public education. By allowing themselves to be used as political pawns to enforce the will of whatever political group is in vogue, they become centers for indoctrination not education.

The process in Modesto was successful because it acknowledged the differences held in that community about homosexuality and found agreement at another level. They discovered you don’t have to condone each other’s philosophical views to treat each other civilly.

2. Common Ground thinking helps people appreciate and apply religious neutrality. The misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine of the separation of church and state in many school districts continues to give a clear message to parents that public education is hostile to people of faith. That is not only tragic, but also unnecessary.

In BridgeBuilder workshops I conduct on religious neutrality, I use the following question to test preconceptions: What statement(s) below express the position of the U.S. Government regarding religion in public education?

1. All religions are equally valid, choose whichever suits you best.

2. Religions are based on superstitions. Only science shows us what is true.

3. Truth can be found in synthesizing the best parts of all religions.

4. Religion is a private matter that public education must ignore.

5. Where any religion is mentioned, other religions must be given equal time.

6. None of the above.

Rarely do I get the right answer, which is number six. All the previous five statements, while appearing on the surface to promote fairness actually serve to undermine religious belief and violate the First Amendment. The Constitution recognizes that religious faith is a fundamental right of the individual that supersedes government intervention. In other words, the U.S. Government will not broker the religious faith of its citizenry. Who would want otherwise?

Thus, government can do nothing to promote religious faith. In the last few decades we’ve come to understand that well. But the other side of the coin is no less important neither can it do anything to undermine religious faith. It is this aspect that needs our attention and common ground thinking provides a framework to ensure that schools are intellectually fair for all students, whether or not they come from religious homes.

3. Common Ground thinking switches the dialogue from what I want for my child, to what is fair for all children, including mine. On cultural issues parents are emotionally charged to wage war for what they think is best for their child. In a common ground environment they come to recognize that others have as much right to that expectation as they do. Very quickly the dialogue will move from narrow-minded self-interest, to solutions that will be fair for every family in the district. I’ve seen it happen in discussions on sexuality education, holiday celebrations and school reform.

Don’t think that a one-day common ground workshop in Modesto made anyone abandon their positions on social issues. The value of it was to give them a way to assess and appreciate those differences. They were able to endorse unanimously a solution not because it carried every detail each one wanted, but because on balance it was fair to all their concerns.

4. Common Ground thinking eliminates confusion, suspicion and anger generated by advocacy groups. The bitter emotion of the culture wars is fostered by fears inculcated by advocacy groups on both sides of the debate. To illustrate, during a period of two days I addressed a conference of health educators and a convention of the Christian Coalition. At the first, I heard one speaker say: “Anyone who opposes condom distribution to high school students is unthinking, uncaring and demagogic.”

At the Christian Coalition conference I heard the following, “We know that sex education is not designed to reduce sexual activity but to encourage it!” I don’t find either of those statements to be true of the vast majority of people I’ve worked with on both sides of this issue, but both were acknowledged with vigorous applause from their respective audiences.

Highly visible, well-funded advocacy groups on the right and the left attempt to raise funds by raising fears and have more to gain by intensifying the conflict than winning the peace. A common ground environment allows people to discover that the other side is not as irrational as they have been led to believe. That’s why it’s important for districts not to make these decisions for the ‘good of the community’, but invite the community to be part of that process.

5. Common Ground thinking recognizes the priority of the family in faith and values. The reason the Supreme Court has consistently held that Congress can open with prayer and the school day cannot is because public education is a gathering of captive minors. Parents must be given preference in the religious upbringing of their children and instilling in them the values they hold on social issues.

If public education is going to survive into the next millennium it is going to have to take seriously the role of parents and recognize that if the schools cannot be used to indoctrinate students into religious faith, it must not also be used as a tool of social engineering in defiance of the values parents seek to instill in their children.

Nothing epitomizes that mentality better than a question posed to me by a California science teacher. “I am an atheist. Is there a way to teach science accurately and not destroy the religious faith of students in my classroom?” The answer to his question is a resounding yes, and his asking it is one of the best demonstrations of the kind of respect we need to make public education work.

It Can Work For You

What happened in Modesto is not unique.

Other districts have seen common ground thinking pull them back from the brink of hostility and fragmentation. One southern Arizona community had been deeply divided over implementation of a new Avoids curriculum and had traded accusations in the local paper for the eight months before I arrived. After a common ground workshop, two dozen people drawn from the district and every segment of the community were able to develop a framework in six hours that has since been implemented successfully.

Later, I received a note from the superintendent: “Some board members were sure that we would find no resolution to the conflict. They expected all-out confrontation. You proved them wrong. We have the ugly events behind us. We now count several former protesters among our most eager supporters.”

I merely gave the community a chance it had not had a safe place to discuss the issues face to face. Common ground thinking works, not because it makes people agree, but because it teaches them how to live together with their deepest differences.