Grading Pilgrims’ Progress

Hands folded on top of an open Bible

Grading Pilgrims' Progress

The school board weighs whether to give students credit for spiritual instruction taught by outside religious groups.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 13, 2023

Hands folded on top of an open Bible

(Photo: pxfuel)

The Knox County school board will vote tonight on whether to award credit to high school students who take Bible study or other courses taught by religious groups off campus.

A new state law allows outside religious instruction to count toward high school graduation.

The credits would count toward students’ graduation, and potentially toward their grade-point averages. 

The proposed policy is the latest step in the evolution of what is typically referred to as “released time” or “Bible released time” — students being excused during the school day to attend religious instruction.

“I’m always about parents’ rights,” school board member Susan Horn said at Monday’s board work session. “These Knox County students are not our kids, they’re their parents’ kids, and they ask us to help educate their kids. If parents want their children to have religious release classes during the day, this allows them to utilize that.”

Horn has been the board’s leading proponent of the policy. Several other board members had questions about how exactly the awarding of credit would work, including how many religious credits students could potentially earn during their high school careers and how those would count on their transcripts.

“I believe it has the potential for controversy,” said the Rev. John Butler, the only board member who is also a working pastor. “One of the things I've always believed is that anything that has the potential for controversy, you try to minimize the controversy by being consistent.”

A Growing Phenomenon

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of “released time” arrangements in a 1952 ruling, with the stipulation that no public school funds or resources could be used to facilitate the religious instruction.

But that ruling only allowed states or school districts to permit released time instruction, it didn’t require it. In Tennessee, for many decades state law left it up to school districts to decide whether to adopt a released time policy.

Released time policies have been proposed in Knox County a few times over the years, most recently in 2019, but have never been adopted. (It failed on a 5-4 vote the last time around.)

But in 2020, the Legislature changed the law so that districts are now required to excuse students for released time instruction for up to one class period per day, whether they have a policy regarding it or not. Initially, the law also allowed districts to award half an academic credit for completing a released time course. This year, that was amended to allow for a full credit.

The awarding of credits is still optional, though, and requires a board policy like the one Horn brought to the board last month. It passed on first reading, but prompted another wave of discussion Monday ahead of its second and final reading tonight.

As required by the state law, the policy says that for a course to be eligible for credit it has to be taught by a licensed Tennessee teacher. The district must also evaluate the course curriculum “neutrally, without any test for religious content or denominational affiliation.”

As to who could offer such a course, the law is broad, allowing for “religious moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.” That could theoretically mean any religious organization, but in practice most released time programs around the country are run by Christian groups.

Horn cited as an example the Campbell County Christian Learning Center, which opened in 2018 and now offers three different classes for high school credit. She said she has heard from a group in Knox County that wants to open a similar center here.

“This entity that I've spoken with, they are looking at really mirroring that program,” Horn said.

How Much Credit?

Other board members had questions about how the credits would be awarded. Deputy County Law Director Gary Dupler said the law didn’t specify whether the classes would need to be graded or offered on a pass/fail basis. Pass/fail classes — such as summer driver’s education courses — can count toward total credits for graduation, but don’t count toward a student’s GPA.

Knoxville attorney Michael Shope has served on the board of the Campbell County Christian Learning Center and is involved with the group seeking to start a local program. He said in an interview this week that the Campbell County program has graded classes that do count toward GPAs.

He said that while the classes are religious, they are also rigorous, testing students on their knowledge of and engagement with biblical material.

“Based on the feedback we receive from the students, it’s not an easy A like some electives might be,” Shope said. 

Some board members raised the possibility that if a released time center offered many different classes, students with semester block scheduling could theoretically earn eight religious credits over the course of four years in high school — although that would mean taking many more electives than the state requires.

“I think we should set some kind of limit, whether it’s one or three or whatever,” board member Daniel Watson said. “I would hate to see that all of a sudden some of our students are getting eight credits or something from release time courses. It also means they’re not in school very much if they’re doing that.”

Shope said that in Campbell County, students have typically taken two of the offered courses. He said he didn’t think many students would want to take more than that, because they will also want to take other electives like art and language classes. 

He said the group interested in opening a Christian learning center in Knox County is nondenominational, to appeal to as many Chrstian students as possible. And he acknowledged that finding a suitable location will be “one of the biggest challenges.”

In Campbell County, the center is on property adjacent to the high school, and students can walk over for their released time classes. But Knox County has a dozen widely separated high schools, so finding a place convenient to even two or three of them could be difficult. Students can only be absent from school for the duration of one class period at a time.

Even if the policy passes on second reading tonight, Shope said he doubted anybody would be able to establish a program to take advantage of it by the time school opens next month.

Between having a place for it, getting a curriculum approved, hiring a teacher, working out transportation — which must be provided by the sponsoring organization — and raising the funds to pay for all of that, “There’s too much work to be done to start something this fall,” he said.