Eleven years ago Renee, her husband, and one-year-old son moved to Hellertown, Pennsylvania. The Hillmans chose Hellertown for its good school district and the feel of an "all-American, apple-pie kind of town." Now the Hillmans have two children, a six-year-old daughter and their son, who is now 12. Until four years ago, Renee was a busy wife and mom, definitely not an activist outside the home. What triggered the change?
In 1991 her husband ran for school board and lost. Two months later the Hillmans learned that at a discussion meeting on outcome-based education a few days before the election, the minutes of the meeting revealed a competitor's statement. The minutes read: "He [the competitor] expressed concern that a portion of the educational plan involved teaching of ethics. This was not acceptable to him because the author of this model, Robert Feir, is a Jew, while he himself is a Christian, so lessons concerning ethics as written by a Jew might not be compatible with what he wants his own children to be taught. He also warned of a hidden agenda in Harrisburg and efforts to subvert your children's education." Those present were stunned — to silence. He was elected.
The Hillmans learned of this the December following the election, when newspaper headlines proclaimed his statements. The community was appalled. Clergy strongly denounced the man's statement. In January 1992, Renee went to her first school board meeting and asked for his resignation. He did not resign but made a public apology.
That school board meeting launched Renee's career as a community activist. She read all she could about public education and the national Religious Right organizations whose stated goals for education were in opposition to hers. One of those organizations, Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE), produced a flyer announcing a rally in Harrisburg. The school board member charged with the anti-Semitic statements — although he denied membership in CEE — was listed as the CEE contact person. A school board meeting in a neighboring school district revealed similar problems. Across school district lines, a few people, including Renee, decided to do something about it, and, over coffee, the Freedom to Learn Network was born.
That was about three and a half years ago. The Hillman house became the base of operations. During those years the Hillman house was deluged with mail, telephone calls and faxes at all hours. Renee's family was understanding and supportive, in spite of the fact that all this commotion was disruptive of family life. Recently FLN found a small office in Allentown. The new location provides a more effective way of meeting the needs of its rapidly growing membership and expanding demands on the organization.
Among FLN's successes is that the anti-Semitic school board member finally ends his four-year term this month (December 1995). He was defeated for reelection.
Although FLN's focus is public education, and non-political, the issues raised are broad and controversial, including sex education, school vouchers, censorship, and school prayer. Public education has become a hot bed of controversy, with the role of the Radical Religious Right an important factor. In its fall 1995 newsletter, FLN listed rules for engaging the Radical Religious Right. A few of the rules:
Renee, at 39, says her work with FLN has meant great personal growth. She has travelled and met all kinds of people all over the country. She looks back on a favorite high school course on public speaking with added appreciation. That education provided a firm foundation for her frequent speaking engagements. Extensive reading, investigating, and research have made her truly knowledgeable in the field of public education. Admittedly emotional at times in confronting problems, she is learning to be more objective, and thus more effective. Renee's insistence on accuracy leads her to question statements and require documentation.
She faces the difficulties confronting public education with a positive approach. She is impressed with what children are learning in public schools today. Her advice to those who want to be a part of the movement to improve public education is to "question, question, question. Demand documentation for what is alleged. Learn what educational policies actually are. Be sure they are up to date. See that they are carried out." And finally, she says, "Don't take anyone's word — mine included. Do your own homework."
The address of the Freedom to Learn Network is Suite 301A, 2020 Downyflake Lane, Allentown, PA 18003.