There were two major issues in the public square that Sheila Weber took on and against all odds was able to put these on the national agenda.
The first issue was teaching the Bible in public schools. When the campaign started on April 26, 2005 at the National Press Club, everyone was saying “Oh no, you can’t teach the Bible in public schools.”
The U.S. Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp in 1963 ruled that devotional reading of ten verses from the Bible in public schools, which had taken place for years, and the devotional use of the Bible in public schools, which had been a tradition from the early 17th century, was no longer constitutional. Massachusetts in 1642 even had the Old Deluder Satan law, the historical step towards compulsory, government-run public education. Similar laws were passed in other New England colonies followed by most mid-Atlantic colonies and some southern colonies. Nevertheless, by 2005, forty-two years after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Bible had been virtually removed from public schools.
To address this issue, Sheila first focused on getting the messaging right. In the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the silver lining was that the majority opinion stated that the academic study of the Bible was permissible. Sheila formed messaging around this. Basically, if a person is not familiar with the Bible, that person can’t fully understand English literature or the English language, history, art, music or culture. That message resonated.
Sheila worked with the press, issuing press releases, talking on radio shows and working with the media. Within two years, Sheila had the cover story of TIME Magazine, “Why the Bible Should Be Taught in Public Schools.”
The second issue was the issue of strengthening marriage. By 2008, the issue of marriage had become toxic at cocktail parties. No one wanted to talk about why marriage was important for the raising of children, a seemingly obvious common sense point.
Sheila focused first on the economic argument. Sheila was the spokesperson for the report, “The Taxpayer Cost of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing,” which was launched on April 15, 2008, the day the IRS requires Americans to file their taxes. Previously, there had been no good data that scholars on both sides of the aisle could agree upon. In a coalition of many groups, the report was launched on the same day in over 30 states by local organizations. Not only did it become the U.S. standard for costs of divorce and unwed childbearing; but without being asked, groups in New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain copied the methodology and issued reports of their own for the respective countries.
Then in 2009, Sheila was the spokesperson when National Marriage Week was launched in the U.S. Over the last six years, Sheila has been the spokesperson for National Marriage Week USA , which was created as the U.S. affiliate of the 11 other countries, mostly in Europe, that were a part of Marriage Week International, which has increased as of today to 25 other countries.
Sheila has given many radio and television interviews with the economic argument. When marriages fall apart, boys without fathers end up in jail twice as often as boys who have fathers around. For girls whose father leave before the age of six, the chance of teenage pregnancy increases seven times from 5 percent for girls with fathers to 35 percent for girls where the father has left at an early age. This gets peoples’ attention because it is inhumane and it is costly to the American taxpayer.
Sheila picked up on the Brookings Institution research presented before the Senate Finance Committee in 2012:
One of our arguments, based in part on a Brookings analysis of Census Bureau data, is that young people can virtually assure that they and their families will avoid poverty if they follow three elementary rules for success complete at least a high school education, work full time, and wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby. Based on an analysis of Census data, people who followed all three of these rules had only a 2 percent chance of being in poverty and a 72 percent chance of joining the middle class (defined as above $55,000 in 2010). These numbers were almost precisely reversed for people who violated all three rules, elevating their chance of being poor to 77 percent and reducing their chance of making the middle class to 4 percent.  Individual effort and good decisions about the big events in life are more important than government programs. Call it blaming the victim if you like, but decisions made by individuals are paramount in the fight to reduce poverty and increase opportunity in America. The nation’s struggle to expand opportunity will continue to be an uphill battle if young people do not learn to make better decisions about their future.
She had fun on FOX and Friends when the hosts of the show said, “We don’t quote Brookings on FOX.” But that is the point, if the Left and the Right agree, where is the argument?
More recently, Sheila became the Facilitator for the Network of Donors to Marriage, an organization which I started four years ago with the belief that donors were essential to the long term struggle for economic health of the nation. The goal is to have a national organization that meets once a year and then sets up local organizations around the country to highlight best practices of what works.
Already, Sheila has contributed significantly to the Network, and the Network is having its impact. Since most of the initial participants were members of the Philanthropy Roundtable, the Roundtable decided to get into action and has been working with high net worth donors and recently raised $12 million at a one-day event in Dallas.
Getting the message right is critically important. Every organization that wants to have impact needs a Sheila.
• Chuck Stetson is CEO of Essentials in Education.
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