Nampa charter school to use Bible as textbook

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In a former carpet and lighting store turned church, the founders of a new charter school in Nampa sit before a row of pews and outline the curriculum they'll introduce to more than 550 students in August.

The first sixth-graders to enroll at Nampa Classical Academy will begin learning Latin. The ninth-graders will delve into the history of Western civilization, with the Bible included as a primary source of teaching material.

The Bible will be taught for its literary and historic qualities, as part of a secular education program, headmaster Val Bush said.

"Some people are rather bigoted, they say you can use everything but that," Bush said. "We say, 'Why?'"

The academy is slated to become the third-largest public charter school in Idaho when it opens this fall.

Portable classrooms on a 17-acre property across town from the New Heart Fellowship Church, where the school is temporarily renting office space, will hold 557 students in kindergarten through ninth grade.

Two months before classes begin, three people have complained to the state that the public charter school appears rooted in Christian beliefs, academy founder Isaac Moffett said.

"We are not a religious school," he said, and students will not receive religious instruction.

Idaho lawmakers passed a law allowing public charter schools a decade ago. More than 30 of the schools -- funded with state money but given more flexibility in how they operate -- have been established by teachers, parents and community members, and have a total of about 10,000 students.

The movement to create new, more autonomous public schools allowed Nampa Classical Academy to create an education grounded in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, Moffett said.

Moffett, 36, attended the College of Southern Idaho and Boise State University before completing a social and behavioral science degree two years ago at a satellite campus of George Fox University, a private Oregon-based Christian school. He finished his teaching degree at Lewis-Clark State College in northern Idaho last year.

"My philosophy did not match anything in traditional education today," said Moffett, who believes the idea that his school is religious stems from the core values the school has adopted. Those values, he said, include character, charity, civility, destiny, discipline, excellence, industry, integrity, service, loyalty, originality and patriotism.

"I've had people say they're Christian values. They're not, they're Western values," Moffett said, "You could even call them American values."

The school has no affiliation with the church where it temporarily operates down the hall from the office where pastor Randy Reams prepares his weekly sermons, except one of the academy's board members does worship there, Bush said.

"It was $300 a month to rent this, it was $1,100 to rent at another place. What would you do?" said Bush, a former Caldwell teacher and school superintendent in Utah and Idaho.

As for the Bible, if students are going to learn about Western civilization, they have to learn about the ancient Hebrews, Moffett said, and "the most authoritative text on ancient Hebrews is the Old Testament."

"If you want to be a fraud in front of those students, then omit the Bible," he said. "The kids don't have to believe it, but to understand a people's culture you have to understand the religious culture as well."

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1963 ruling that banned ceremonial school Bible readings, said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" so long as material is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."

While in practice, public schools across the country have traditionally avoided Bible courses and the potential controversy, hundreds do offer voluntary classes to students.

Nationwide, 487 school districts and 1,975 high schools in 38 states are teaching Bible classes with materials from the National Council On Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the Greensboro, N.C.-based organization says.

Students at the Nampa academy will read from a New International Version Bible that includes footnotes denoting cultural and archaeology discoveries, Moffett said.

When studying literature, students will read from the King James version of the Bible.

In Idaho, school districts are not prohibited from using the Bible as part of literature or history courses.

"When it comes to a literature class, the state does not have a list of books or novels teachers can use in the classroom," state Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said. "I don't think this is the first school to do it.

"I think it is a historical text, so obviously schools can look at using it in different ways that don't violate separation of church and state."

Bill Goesling, chairman of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, said the Bible wasn't discussed when Nampa Classical Academy was approved last year. The school drafted a 280-page charter outlining its goals and overall philosophy, a document that does not mention the Bible or religion.

"I don't remember it coming up. Had it been known, I think we would have spent a little bit more time on it," Goesling said. "If it's being used as a whole class, and it becomes a Bible study, than we are going to have a problem.

"We've had two different petitions that approached it in that sense, that it was going to be more of a religious study than a historical study, and we turned them down."

Shawna Schneiderman, a 33-year-old former Notus teacher and one of two dozen instructors at Nampa Classical Academy, says the Bible is one of many texts students will read from.

For example, when studying the history and the culture of the Hebrews, Greeks and Mesopotamians, the students will read Greek myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh and from the book of Genesis, Schneiderman said.

"We knew people would come and say you can't do that," she said. "We knew people would not understand."