How long has Released Time Education been around and how did it get started?
The roots for Released Time Education come out of a long heritage of Bible studying in public schools. It goes back to the early years of our country when Bibles were a classroom textbook. For example, in 1781, Congress approved the purchase of Bibles to be used in public schools. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson required Washington, DC, to use the Bible and Watts Hymnal. The famous McGuffey reader published in 1836 taught Bible verses along with the ABCs.
The idea of releasing public school students for devotional religious study off school premises in the United States was first discussed in 1905 at a conference in New York City. The proposal was that public elementary schools should be closed one day a week in addition to Sunday so those parents who so desired could have their children attend religious instruction outside of the school building.
However, Dr. William Wirt, an innovative educator and superintendent of the Gary, Indiana, schools established a program in 1914 in which 619 students participated in off-campus religious education. Dr. Wirt believed that the church, home, playground, library, and school were all components in a child's education. The public school, however, had and still has no responsibility for teachers, curriculum, conduct, or achievement within the Released Time classes.
Released Time grew and flourished. In 1922, for example, Released Time programs were active in 23 states. 40,000 students from 200 school districts were participating. By 1932, thirty states had active Released Time programs in 400 communities with enrollment of 250,000 students. Ten years later, in 1942 participation reached 1.5 million students in 46 States. Released Time peaked in 1947 with 2 million students enrolled in 2,200 communities. During this time, favorable Released Time legislation was adopted by 12 States.
In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld RTRE programs as legal in all 50 states (Zorach v. Clauson). The three requirements for RTBE being legal are: (1) parental permission must be given, (2) instruction must take place off school grounds, and (3) no state resources may be used.
Currently, it is estimated that there are over 1,000 Released Time programs in operation today involving over 250,000 students in first grade through high school.