Schooled Reporting on education

Christian colleges celebrate proposed policy changes

Education | Trump administration plans review of regulations targeting faith-based higher education
by Leigh Jones
Posted 5/16/18, 02:22 pm

Advocates for Christian higher education are praising the news that the Department of Education plans to review regulations “regarding the eligibility of faith-based entities to obtain grants from the department or to participate in state-administered programs.”

The notice goes on to cite the need to make federal regulations consistent with current law, a vague reference that could point to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. The justices ruled religious entities could not be excluded from certain government programs just because they are religious. No one seems clear about what that could mean for Christian colleges.

But that didn’t stop Christian higher education leaders from praising the new, friendlier overtures coming from the Trump administration.

“We appreciate Secretary [Betsy] DeVos’ commitment to ensuring students are able to obtain quality educations at the institutions of higher education that will best serve their needs, including religious colleges and universities,” said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. “Eliminating or revising regulations that impose undue and outdated restrictions on religious institutions is an important and welcome development.”

One Obama-era action that could get the ax: The published list of Christian universities that have religious exemptions to some Title IX regulations. The LGBT lobby group Human Rights Campaign began urging the federal government in 2016 to publish the list, under the guise of preventing students from attending those schools without knowing their positions on sexuality and gender identity. But leaders at Christian colleges argued the list amounted to government discrimination against them.

Despite their objections, President Barack Obama’s Education Department agreed to compile the list and post it online. Once DeVos took over the department last year, she said she might discontinue publishing the list, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Other regulations that could face changes after the new review include restrictions on federal work-study grants that prohibit students from taking faith-based jobs. Another grant program that helps prepare low-income, first-generation students for college, GEAR UP, could expand to allow Christian schools to lead outreach efforts. For now, they can only participate in non-religious activities and not lead programs.

In reviewing its regulations, the Education Department likely will keep in mind Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent memo urging government deference for religious liberty.

“Therefore, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity, including employment, contracting, and programming,” he wrote.

Associated Press/Photo by Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal Associated Press/Photo by Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal Students from Mesilla Valley Christian School attend a New Mexico Supreme Court hearing in Santa Fe on May 7.

New Mexico textbook fight, round two

The New Mexico Supreme Court heard arguments for a second time in a case challenging the state’s textbook lending program. In 2015, the court ruled the program violated the state’s Blaine Amendment because it allowed students at religious schools to participate. The U.S. Supreme Court asked the New Mexico justices to reconsider their decision after the high court issued its landmark ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, another case involving a state Blaine Amendment.

Blaine Amendments date back to the 19th century, when lawmakers in almost every state adopted them as a way to target the spread of Catholic schools and other institutions. Broadly speaking, they prevent government money from going to religious organizations, even if it’s for neutral purposes. In Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court ruled Missouri could not exclude a church school from a playground resurfacing grant program.

Public school supporters routinely use Blaine Amendments to block school choice programs that allow students to use taxpayer money to pay for private education. School choice advocates insist the programs should not dictate to parents where they can use the funds. The New Mexico case could help settle that argument. After last week’s oral arguments, Eric Baxter, senior counsel at religious liberty law firm Becket, hinted at the case’s broader implications: “A science textbook is a science textbook no matter whose shelf it’s on. It’s time to stop discriminating and give all kids equal access to the best educational opportunities.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court will issue a decision later this year. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Gerry Broome Associated Press/Photo by Gerry Broome Teachers rally outside the House and Senate chambers in the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday.

Teacher strike spreads to Raleigh

North Carolina teachers are the latest to vent their pay frustrations by walking off the job. Thousands of educators were expected to rally Wednesday in the capital city of Raleigh, as state lawmakers convene for the first day of this year’s legislative session. The statewide walkouts will leave about two-thirds of North Carolina’s schoolchildren with nowhere to go during the day.

North Carolina teachers have gotten pay raises for the last four years, and planned increases this year would make it five. They bring home $50,000 a year, on average, placing them 39th on the oft-cited list ranking teacher pay nationally. The median household income in North Carolina was $50,584 in 2016, about $7,000 lower than the national average. But according to at least one analysis, the cost of living in the Tar Heel state is 5 percent lower than the national average.

Another factor worth noting: The state contributes nearly 9 percent of each teacher’s salary to the public employee retirement plan, a delayed benefit teachers receive after they retire. —L.J.

Faith-based bullying

The Department of Education released data last month that included information on bullying based on religious intolerance. The survey showed 8 percent of the 135,600 reported incidents of bullying or harassment for the 2015-2016 school year stemmed from a student’s religious affiliation. That was enough to prompt Aviva Vogelstein of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to call religious harassment in public schools a “major problem.” The data does not include a breakdown by religion, so it’s impossible to know how many Christian students are affected. But that could change: Vogelstein asked government officials to dig into the data and provide more details. —L.J.

Bye, bye birthday spanking

This week’s education head-scratcher comes from a North Texas elementary school finally giving up its birthday spanking tradition. For the last eight years, Principal Bridget Williams has called students into her office at Alvord Elementary School for a celebratory paddling on their birthdays. A parent finally complained, and Williams decided to end the practice rather than waste time, energy, and possibly legal funds, to defend it. Some parents are disappointed, insisting their children look forward to their spanking every year. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 05/19/2018 02:06 am

    Interesting, if almost 1 in 10 cases of bullying are related to religion, I hope they do take a closer look at it.