Education Update ― Nov. 11, 2016

November 11, 2016

News Signs of Hope for School Choice Movement

A couple of developments this fall have reignited the school choice movement: 1) President- elect Donald Trump’s proposal to promote school choice through federal block grants and 2) a groundbreaking court decision in Nevada. Even when supported by U.S. presidents, school choice programs are often vulnerable to legal attacks from opponents who argue that public funding should not be funneled to religious schools. However, on Sept. 29, a decision from the Nevada Supreme Court highlighted a strategy that can withstand those attacks: The Court upheld the constitutionality of the state's education savings account (ESA) program. Nevada’s initiative is the most expansive ESA program in the nation because it doesn’t limit families from participating due to income.

HOW IT WORKS: The decision threw a national spotlight on ESAs' ability to better withstand court challenges by offering a more pure, customizable form of parental choice. ESAs accomplish this by cutting out government middle men and redirecting a portion of the funding the state would have spent on a child in the public school system to an education savings account. Parents then directly access these savings accounts to pay for their children's unique education needs, which can include private school tuition, home school materials, extra tutoring and more. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged Nevada's ESA program, making the usual arguments about public funding going to religious organizations.

THE OUTCOME: Nevada's high court disagreed with the ACLU, explaining that “Once the public funds are deposited into an education savings account, the funds are no longer ‘public funds’ but are instead the private funds of the individual parent who established the account. The parent decides where to spend that money for the child's education and may choose from a variety of participating entities, including religious and non-religious schools." (Note: Although the Court found favorably on that key issue, it still halted the state ESAs until the state resolves funding allocation issues. But that's a temporary setback). ESAs also survived a similar legal challenge in Arizona. As a result, at least 18 states have introduced ESA legislation in 2016 and five states already implemented ESA programs.

The Truth About After-School Satan Clubs

Focus on the Family has heard from parents concerned about the much-hyped ‘after-school Satan clubs,' which generated news stories nationwide. Typical questions were, Who is leading this movement?, How far-reaching is it? And how concerned should parents be? Here are quick answers:

Leadership/national reach: An organization called The Satanic Temple, based in Massachusetts, announced its goal in 2016 to have ‘after-school Satan clubs’ in “public elementary schools across the nation.” The group has approached nine elementary schools in nine states, according to its website. So far, only one of those requests has been approved— in Portland, Oregon—according to recent news reports.

Beliefs/teachings: The clubs are promoted by activists who don't actually have a literal belief in Satan. Club syllabi emphasize “a scientific, rationalist, non-superstitious world view." In other words, their beliefs reflect a secularist, atheistic viewpoint. It’s also worth noting that—unlike the promoters of “After School Satan Clubs”— the official “Church of Satan” has denounced, with a written statement, the strategy of pushing Satanic clubs in schools.

Purpose/strategy: At its heart, this is an effort to use intimidation to purge Christian expressions from the public square. For instance, The Satanic Temple has made clear that it is only targeting schools that have allowed Good News Clubs to meet on their campuses. Good News Clubs are gospel-centered, after-school groups that children can voluntarily attend with their parents' permission. The Temple argues that, since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Good News Clubs’ equal-access rights to meet on campus, its clubs also have the same rights. The organization used similar strategies to protest Ten Commandments monuments and city council prayers.

How Christians Can Respond:

  • Don’t allow fear to result in censorship for all. One of the First Amendment principles that we cherish most in this country is the idea of having a free marketplace of ideas. That’s because, as Americans, we believe the truth will rise to the surface when allowed to be heard. And, as Christians, we know the truth of the Bible will win out in a competition with any other belief system.
  • Encourage your education officials that schools don’t have to surrender to fear tactics and shut down legitimate freedoms for students. All students already have equal rights to express their religious freedoms in a way that doesn’t disrupt instruction time. So allowing kids to bring a personal Bible to school, share a verse with a friend or participate in a Christian-themed event before or after school doesn’t create any new right. It’s already there.
  • Plus, schools can apply common-sense policies to these situations in a way that protects kids. For example, an atheist group announced plans to distribute satanic literature that appeared to include lewd imagery and disparaging comments toward Christianity. But schools have the right to implement existing nondiscrimination policies and decency standards, especially when it impacts elementary-school children.