Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Education Policy (PhD)

Degree Level



Education Reform


Patrick Wolf

Committee Member

Albert A. Cheng,

Second Committee Member

Sarah C. McKenzie

Third Committee Member

David J. Childs


Black Church and African American education;Faith and education;Political ideology and religion;Prayer in schools;Religion and education;Separation of church and state


The ‘separation of church and state’ is a fundamental precept of the United States, yet the phrase itself is not written in the Constitution and even Supreme Court justices disagree on how it should be defined. The ambiguity surrounding religious liberty is perhaps most felt in K-12 public education, where the fear of inflicting faith formation on impressionable students has inspired the vision of a secular, God-neutral, government-run school system. As such, federal and state laws dictate that public school educators who coerce students by promoting or inhibiting religious devotion risk losing their jobs. Yet, the reality is that the fabric of a school is woven by the people who work, learn, and play in it—and oftentimes those people and their religious faith are indivisible. In this circumstance, the religious faith of individuals becomes a stealth moderator of school-based decision-making and outcomes, and as such, the ‘separation of church and state’ in public education becomes a misnomer. This three-papers-on-a-theme dissertation interrogates the under-studied topic of the role that religiosity plays in K-12 public education. Employing both qualitative and quantitative methodology, I utilize a nationally representative survey on public school perceptions, criminal and civil court records from Milwaukee, and Twitter discourse about the firing of a praying football coach to explicate this often-controversial topic. As a result, this dissertation provides evidence of the statistically significant predictive power of religious faith on students, parents, and teachers. At the same time, this dissertation reveals the complexity and apprehension that everyday Americans have about religion in K-12 public schooling. In my first study, I challenge the stereotype of Evangelical Christians being adversarial toward public education due to their faith by using parent and teacher survey data to compete the factors of religion, race, and political ideology to determine which identity drives discontent with public schools. I find that the variable of religion carries no statistically significant effect. Instead, race and political ideology are the major drivers of perception on public schooling, with political ideology having the greatest influence. In my second study, I found that low-income students of color in Milwaukee who either attended religious services at least once a week in 8th or 9th grade or attended a private, mostly religious high school had fewer criminal convictions and paternity suits by their mid-20s compared to their matched counterparts in Milwaukee Public Schools who came from homes with low religiosity. My third and final study is a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of Twitter comments following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Kennedy v. Bremerton, which deemed it constitutional for a Christian public school football coach to pray mid-field with his players after a game. I discerned from the CDA that religious freedom was viewed in terms of winners and losers; that the public has opposite interpretations of what the phrase “separation of church and state” means; that people often interweave racism, abortion rights, and other social issues with their views on religious freedom; and that unfettered religious expression in public schools could have unintended consequences for Christians.