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Church-state watchdog claims local taxpayer-funded charter school more parochial than public

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But Lipper says Americans United is equally troubled with what he calls pattern of church-state blurring at Shekinah. The organization summarized in another letter to the TEA this April: "the Academy's promotion of and entanglement with religion is more systemic than we previously understood."

Americans United complains that several of the Academy's campuses are located inside active churches — two campuses share the name of their host church. One, bookended by the San Antonio State Hospital and the NuStar refinery on South Presa, is Shekinah's Abundant Life Academy, housed out of the Abundant Life Church. Beneath the house of worship's roadside billboard is a Shekinah sign declaring the institute's mantra: "A New Generation of Public Schools with the Heart of a Private School."

Washington's own Shadrach Temple International hosts the Radiance Academy's Daystar campus. When the Current called the number listed for Shadrach Temple this week seeking comment from Washington, the line went straight to Daystar staff (an unnamed staffer insisted over the phone, "We're the school, but we're not affiliated at all with the church here," before passing us on to another extension inside the building.)
Lipper points to Shekinah's 2010 graduation commencement speech, delivered by religious and motivational speaker Christopher C. Herring, titled, "God's Exciting Plans for YOU," in which he calls faith "a fundamental prerequisite to living an abundant life." Americans United also claims the name Shekinah itself is inherently religious — Shekinah, meaning "dwelling" in Hebrew, is also used in a religious context to connote the divine presence of God.

Washington started Shekinah just as Texas began to fan the charter school movement in the 1990s under then governor George W. Bush, the premise being that schools independent of local boards and union contracts would be more free to focus on educational achievement. Though Texas charters must meet core curriculum standards set out by the State Board of Education, they can specialize and emphasize areas like math, science, technology, or bilingual education. Charters also don't have to adhere to public school calendars or hours, and can even pay below state-mandated salary levels for teachers. According to the TEA, Texas in 2011 had some 200 charter school operators running nearly 500 charter campuses.

"The TEA staff that administers the charter school system in Texas is whittled down to the bone," said Trinity University professor and SBOE member Michael Soto. There are seven TEA staffers working the division tasked with keeping watch over the state's charters. "They have to provide oversight for hundreds of schools across the state and they really don't even have time to conduct paperwork audits, let alone to perform site visits and do the other kind of immediate oversight that we would expect in a public school system."

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