When Natalie Blasingame talks about “the enemy,” she’s not talking about her opponent in the last Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School Board election. She’s talking about “Satan, the Devil, the evil” that exists in this world creating discord and dividing people.
That she chose to include that phrase in a flyer inviting people to an October meeting entitled “Is God Allowed in Schools?” speaks to her continued mission of putting God back in the public schools. Although she was defeated — by less than 1,100 votes — in the November at-large election, Blasingame has made peace with that. “God has another plan for me.”
The Cy-Fair candidate, employed as a high level assistant superintendent in the Houston ISD (with a daughter attending school in Spring Branch ISD, just to make it all more complicated) has now taken on the role of community activist, busy organizing like-thinkers who really would prefer to see a return to happier times when students and teachers could talk about their Christian God throughout the school day without fear of legal reprisals.
While some people might think this 45-year-old woman is just another wacko religious zealot who’s about run through her 15 minutes of fame, others are taking her candidacy and mission seriously, and with no small amount of concern about what it represents on a number of fronts.
To begin with, there’s the outside money factor. Blasingame’s very local school board race received funding from the LEE (Leadership for Educational Equality) organization based in Washington, D.C. — an organization whose membership requirements are that you were part of the Teach for America program, which Blasingame was. LEE, funded in part by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Walmart’s Steuart Walton, supports its members’ political campaigns without regard to political ideology. LEE similarly funded recent Austin ISD board candidate David Thompson, who also went down to defeat. It is all in keeping with TFA’s mission to put its people in the right places to effect change.
It also signals an outside level of interference with local politics that many people find inappropriate. An East Coast money fund concerning itself with school board races in Texas?
The other factor is the religion-in-schools argument, the feeling that religious people — and here we’re essentially talking about Christians — are not getting a fair shake in public schools. Which really lands squarely on the last nerve of others who maintain that is just not the case, and who envision a landscape of school districts led into poorly conceived, money-draining religious lawsuits with about the same chance of success as the medieval Crusades.
If you are among those who believe religion is more than adequately provided for in public schools, discard Blasingame’s ideas at your peril. More than 15,000 people, or 48 percent of the voters in that race, thought Blasingame’s platform to bring God into public schools was both meaningful and worthy.
“This is certainly not new. We hear this all the time including from the members of the State Board of Education who seem also just as uninformed,” says Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, which is devoted to religious freedom.
“The state board of education’s own curriculum standards, for example, require that students learn about various Christian holidays as well as for other religions. They require that students learn about Christianity as well as Hindu and other religions. The truth is all students are allowed to discuss religion with any other student they want to. They can pray every day,” Quinn says.
“What can’t happen is the school or the school district or school employees cannot promote or guide those kind of activities because then you get into church-state issues. The constitution forbids government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion or any religion at all.”
Quinn called the idea that public schools are somehow persecuting conservative Christians “a great scare tactic” and said it was used frequently and on the increase lately. “What many of these folks unfortunately are trying to do is put their local schools into the position of deciding whose religious beliefs to promote or favor and that the school cannot do.”
On November 7, Blasingame put together another meeting at Copperfield Church. Attendance was sparse (13 people) and attention was dwindling toward the end of the 2-1/2-hour meeting, which included a Skype address from Chelsey Youman, Esq. (no less) of the Liberty Institute to review the rights of religious students and teachers in public schools. (And yes, our own Kountze High cheerleaders and their religious banners now before the U.S. Supreme Court were a highlight.)
Just before leaving, Blasingame decided to share an anecdote about how one time, as a principal, she had to deal with a teenage girl at prom who had just received word that that there had been an accident and the girl’s father was badly injured, maybe even dead.
Tough stuff for any educator. So what was the first thing Blasingame thought to say? She asked the girl “Are you a Christian?” The girl replied yes and Blasingame offered to pray with her. She did this even though, as she told the small group gathered at the church, she could get in trouble for bringing up religion on school property. But the words just tumbled out.
To the people at the church meeting, what Blasingame did was just wonderful. She had shown concern and love for a student at a desperate time buoyed by her own Christian faith. The girl later wrote up a testimonial about her, Blasingame told us.
You have to wonder, though, what would have happened if the girl’s answer had been “no.” Blasingame comes across as a warm, caring, intelligent, if occasionally distracted professional and you want to believe there would have been just as much care if the child hadn’t been Christian.
Still, was that really the first question that needed to be asked?
Check public records and you’ll see Natalie Kagan Blasingame listed as Jewish, which might well be an uncomfortable surprise to some of her most ardent supporters. Turns out she’s of Jewish heritage, proudly so she says, but her father converted to Christianity in South Africa, where she was born, and even founded a church there. She has always been a Christian, she says, bouncing from one denomination to another, with some non-denominational stops along the way. Right now she is Baptist. She became a naturalized American citizen in high school.
Blasingame insists that her new political career is not controlled by anyone else. She got her money from LEE but no one there told her what to do.
She has worked for several school districts and says that despite how some people have tried to paint her, she is not a charter school fan and says she believes in public schools. She just wants to make them better and that includes trying to convince Cy-Fair, now a minority-majority district with a rising number of Hispanic students, that it ought to invest in a dual language program. Blasingame herself is bilingual; has taught bilingual classes and the reason her grade school daughter remains in Spring Branch ISD is so she can remain in a bilingual class.
As a longtime educator is urban districts, Blasingame rails against putting labels on kids and speaks to the special needs of kids in low-income circumstances. For three years she oversaw Wheatley, Booker T. Washingon and Furr, high schools with at-risk populations and says she was called to do that. For the last year she’s been an intervention specialist for HISD, a new position designed to rescue and promote kids across the district.
There’s much that anyone of a more liberal persuasion would find to like about her avowed philosophy of education. But her appeal to conservative Christians is squarely in another camp (although she did disappoint the audience by saying that yes, if Christian prayers were allowed Satanist ones could be too).
Listening to some — not all — of the people in the room at her last meeting, there were some scary, creepy thoughts there.
One woman, for example, who said she was an HISD teacher, told her students that Charles Darwin’s evolution was just a theory, like any other. Asked by one student what she personally believed, she said she made sure to stipulate that what she was about to say was “private speech” and told him she didn’t believe in evolution; she chose to believe in the Bible and creationism.
The HISD teacher also went on at length about how black Christians are able to exalt their faith as public leaders and in schools but whites are not. And she was certainly tired of hearing about “Diwali and Kwanza but not Christmas.” Obama became almost a curse word in the meeting and his (and Hillary Clinton’s) call to “freedom to worship” was attacked by several there as code words for trying to force people into keeping their religious views confined to a church. (In a follow-up conversation Blasingame insisted she didn’t hear any racial subtext at the meeting.)
Blasingame floated the idea of trying to rally the troops to call for school boards to develop training programs for public school educators to know what they can and can’t say about religion while on the job. Asked to pin down her mission a bit more, she was at a loss at the last meeting, finally coming up with “We want to stop the over-interpretation of religion in our schools.” Not the greatest rallying cry in the world.
Asked for how she’s going to fund this upcoming effort, Blasingame is equally vague. Whether LEE will fund her for another run is something that perhaps only she knows. Cy-Fair with its all at-large elections is easier to gain a toehold in than single member districts. Many political watchers are convinced her continuing efforts are all to lay the groundwork for another campaign by keeping her name before the public. She came so close before with almost no name recognition.
“$10,000 more and she’d have had it,” one person close to the election said.
Dan Quinn is resolute. “You don’t want to turn a public school classroom into a Sunday school classroom.”
Natalie Blasingame is equally determined. She believes kids need to be able to work talk of God into their everyday lives and that includes in school. She calls it “letting kids access their full selves” and says without it, all the high math scores in the world won’t help them with life.
Actually, the Bible tells us that Christians don’t need to shout their faith from the rooftop. Be a good role model and others will seek you out, learn about the influences upon you. Actions speak louder than words.
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Matthew 6:6 advises good Christians to pray without show. “But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees from the hidden place will reward you.” (International Standard Version).
But that’s not the Bible these people are reading these days. Overshadowing the moments of genuine, thoughtful concern that existed in that church meeting on November 7 was the hostility, jealousy and anger of people who want their own version of faith restored to its dominant position in their schools.
Blasingame says: “I’m just waiting from God on where we go next.”
For those of us — Christians or otherwise — who don’t want any students to feel bad because they’re not part of a Christian majority, and who don’t want teachers sharing their religious beliefs, and who are appalled at the idea that ignorance in the name of religion should share equal billing with science — well, we might want to pay attention to where Blasingame goes. And who’s going with her.