Bartlett promotes Christian faith in run for top public school official

Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Jim Bartlett hands out flyers during the Band Night parade in Bismarck on May 10, 2024. (Amy Dalrymple/North Dakota Monitor)

For Jim Bartlett, the biggest problem facing public schools has nothing to do with test scores, teacher retention or graduation rates, and everything to do with the persecution of Christian values.

“The whole school system right now — it’s been this way for a long time, that’s why we can’t see it — is at war with Christianity,” the candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction said.

Bartlett is running on a faith-heavy, far-right platform that includes a promise to teach K-12 students the Ten Commandments.

The Bottineau resident believes that the original authors of the North Dakota Constitution intended for schools to impart Christian morals on students — and that the modern school system has abandoned this mandate.

“There’s no question that America, Western civilization, North Dakota had a Christian heritage and context,” he said.

He’s even recruiting Christian churches to campaign for him. Bartlett in late April estimated he had reached out to around 50 congregations.

Bartlett had raised about $16,700 in campaign contributions as of May 4, according to financial data published on the Secretary of State’s website. He had spent about $6,300 of that sum.

Incumbent Kirsten Baesler, who is running for reelection, has countered that promoting religious views in school is against the North Dakota Constitution, which holds that the public education system must be “free from sectarian control.”

Bartlett doesn’t think his vision for the office would violate this requirement.

“The idea of sectarian control would be if you had one denomination in charge of the public schools or the state,” he said.

His theory is that the public school system is unfairly dominated by secularism — which he feels is its own kind of “sectarian control” —  and that teachers are systematically indoctrinating kids with atheism, Marxism, anti-Christian animus and other beliefs.

Baesler has said that that’s not happening in the public school system, and that these concerns are out of touch with the real needs of teachers, families and students.

Bartlett said his rhetoric has struck a chord with many North Dakotans who feel that the education system has abandoned traditional values and refuses to work hand in hand with parents.

“The solution is to get rid of the bad philosophies and return to the North Dakota Constitution, which included Christian morality,” he said.

Bartlett pointed to a phrase in the state constitution that requires public schools to ensure North Dakota residents are taught “a high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality” — something he believes can only be achieved by teaching Christian values.

When asked whether this approach would discriminate against students of other faith backgrounds, or those raised in nonreligious households, Bartlett said he is confident a Christian system would be the most fair.

“Christians would be the best religion to be in control,” he said. “We’re taught to be kind and generous to others and help them.”

On the other hand, Bartlett has also said he would allow local communities complete control over their K-12 education. In a previous interview, he said his hope is for North Dakota to eventually do away with the role of superintendent of public instruction.

He said that, hypothetically, if a community were in favor of keeping its schools secular, he would allow it.

“That’s their choice, and that’s within their school,” Bartlett said. 

Bartlett is a former engineering educator who taught at North Dakota State University and has worked with the National Science Foundation, according to a news release from his campaign. 

He was also executive director of the North Dakota Homeschool Association in the 2000s and early 2010s. Today, Bartlett and his family work in organic farming.

Bartlett won a letter of support from the North Dakota Republican Party over Baesler at the party’s endorsing convention in April. The other two candidates — former state Sen. Jason Heitkamp and former higher education administrator Darko Draganic — did not seek a letter of support at the convention.

North Dakota United, which represents North Dakota education workers, does not officially endorse candidates but gave Baesler $7,500 through a PAC, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

A new poll of 550 voters published by North Dakota United showed 42% of responders were undecided in the superintendent race. Baesler earned 38% support, followed by Heitkamp with 12% and Bartlett with 8%. Darko earned support from just 1% of participants.

NDU DPI 2024 Primary Survey

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