The Culture War Continues

It looks like Hamilton Forman, Broward County's chief political potentate, was right: His bill requiring that every elementary school student in Florida be taught "character education" will likely be passed into law by the state legislature. But the multimillionaire was wrong about one thing: His favorite character-training curriculum, Character First!, won't be the model program. Character First! was stripped from the bill after a New Times article revealed that it was designed by authoritarian Christian minister Bill Gothard and includes obedience drills -- complete with group salutes and "hup, two, threes" -- demanding that children "follow orders instantly."

But Hamilton Forman's Character First! crusade is far from finished. He's simply switching the setting of his effort from the statehouse to the Broward County School Board, which will ultimately have control over what morals county schoolchildren are taught. In late March, for instance, Forman gave Lois Wexler, the school board's chairperson, a copy of the Character First! curriculum and encouraged her to support it. Wexler, who like other board members has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Forman family, says she supports character education -- just not Character First! She doesn't want to institute a program linked to Gothard and finds parts of it "scary."

"He is bound and determined" to implement Character First!, Wexler says of Forman. "He believes in what he does, and he believes it's in the best interest of children. We can reason with that, and I think we can get to the same place. But how we get there will be different."

School board member Judie Budnick says she "applauds" Forman's efforts and would like to incorporate the best parts of Character First! into a Broward program. But she doesn't support the "Hitlerian" aspects of Forman's preferred curriculum, which she says won't work in South Florida, "where children are abused because they don't know how to say 'no,' and where the per capita of survivors of the Holocaust is very high."

"I don't think [Forman's] ulterior motive was to have little authoritarian personalities," Budnick continued. "This man, from the core of him, is decent, honorable, and respectable, and those qualities are not what he sees coming out of schools anymore."

The Character First! debate began after Forman persuaded State Sen. Howard Forman (no relation to Hamilton Forman) and Rep. Tracy Stafford to sponsor companion bills in the House and Senate mandating that character education -- with Character First! as a model program -- be taught in every public elementary school in the state. After the New Times article ("Little Soldiers in the Culture War," February 18) was published, the program was removed from both bills amid objections raised by teachers' unions, political groups, talk-radio personalities, parents, and the American Jewish Congress, a powerful lobbying organization that counts the senator as a board member.

"We decided to talk to [Howard Forman] privately and cautiously," says Jack Karako, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress. "Obviously, he's one of our board members, so this was done with discretion, and he willingly agreed to change the bill."

Howard Forman says he planned to amend the bill anyway.
"After you wrote your article," he says, "people were wondering about Mr. Gothard, and I said, 'That's not what it's all about.' This is about teaching about Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Martin Luther King -- those kind of examples. That obedience part [of Character First!] really wouldn't go over too well in these latter years of the 20th Century."

Still remaining in both bills is another program, Character Counts. Developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in California, it has met with little controversy.

Gothard, known to be a media recluse, has refused to speak with New Times, but his teachings can be found in seminars held around the world. He espouses "universal, non-optional" principles and a "chain of command," which holds that authority figures represent God, and therefore wives must obey husbands, workers their employers, and citizens their politicians. He boasts of 2.5 million "alumni," who are given rules on everything -- what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, how to manage money.

Many of Gothard's controversial teachings are not included in Character First! Overt references to God and Christianity, for example, are absent. But his patented authoritarianism remains, and all the lessons involve drills and repeating "I will," such as, "I will not exaggerate to make things seem different than what they are" and "I will always be cheerful." Detractors say some of the curriculum smacks of Sunday School. The lesson on forgiveness, which includes illustrations of a shepherd and a lamb, instructs children to "respond kindly to those who hurt me" and to always "turn the other cheek."

Hamilton Forman, a local pioneer who made a fortune in Florida land speculation, instituted Character First! at his publicly funded charter school in Fort Lauderdale, the Charter School of Excellence. One of Hamilton Forman's first converts to the program was Jeb Bush, who would soon be elected Florida's governor. Bush founded the Liberty City Charter School, where teachers have also been trained in the Character First! curriculum and plan to implement it.

"That bothered me more than anything, that [Gothard] could get his fingers in our schools and everybody would just think he's the best thing in the world without any question, from Bush on down," says Ruby Felderman, president of the Cypress Democratic Club in Palm Beach County.

The character bills have passed through education committees in Tallahassee and are now in appropriations, where legislators will determine whether or not the $5 million or more needed to fund character education across the state is available. Though Character First! has been taken out of the legislation, it doesn't mean that public schools won't be allowed to teach it. The bills stipulate that schools teach Character Counts or a program "similar" to it, which could include Character First!

"It will depend on the interpretation of the school districts," said Stafford's legislative aide, Nicole Souder. "It's up to local control."

The Broward County School Board has applied for a state grant to develop its own character education class and plans to pilot the program next year at selected schools, says Wexler.

"It needs to have gentle, kind, soft, consistent reminders incorporated into everyday life," Budnick says. "Then you won't need things like 'I wills.'"

Even if the school board were to make the unlikely decision to choose Character First!, representatives from several groups say they would protest the program.

"We're going to keep an eye on what the school districts are going to do with it," says David Clark, spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, a 65,000-member teachers' union. "We do want to keep an eye on them and make sure that they don't veer back into Character First!"

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman