Faith in Public Schools

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The First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty includes the freedom to believe or not to believe, and to observe one’s faith openly without government interference. The U.S. Department of Education has traditionally provided statements on the role of religion in the public schools.  This has included guidance on school prayer, religious holidays, religious songs and religion in the curriculum.

The relationship between religion and government in the United States is governed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government, but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required the Secretary of Education to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), P.L. 114-95, was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015.  ESSA reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It may be time for the United States Department of Education to reissue the guidance offered by then Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

The guidance in 2002, clarifies the rights of students to pray in public schools. As stated in the guidance, “…the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals” such as students. Therefore, “[a]mong other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities.” Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families.

At the same time, school officials may not “compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.” Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students.

Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley wrote: “Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, art-work, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.  Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Educators are also free much like all other citizens to practice their faith. Public school teachers and administrators should be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their official duties. School officials who wish to pray or engage in other religious activities should do so without students present.  For example, if teachers want to meet for prayer or scriptural study in the faculty lounge during free time in the school day or before or after school, they should do it when they have no official duty and without students present.

Under a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, public schools that permit their facilities to be used by community groups are not permitted to discriminate against religious groups. This ruling was reaffirmed in Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001), in which the context of a religiously-affiliated after-school program that sought to use public school facilities was upheld.

In the age we live in, it is critical to recognize the freedoms we have. Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families. Policymakers should make certain that school board policy protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination.

Surely, it is not hard to fathom the necessity of building a common understanding in regards to the meaning of the First Amendment in the public school setting. Schools should develop their own district-wide policy regarding religious expression and to engage parents, teachers, various faith communities and the broader community.  You have the freedom to believe or not to believe, and to observe your faith openly without government interference.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.

Time to Separate PACS from Lobbying

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How is it possible to separate organizations’ campaign contributions from their lobbying activities? It may not ever be possible.  Political Action Committee (PAC) is a term for a political committee organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates.  Numerous groups that have a PAC do not have a lobbyist, and many groups that have a lobbyist do not have a PAC.  Perhaps it should be an either/or option and get the political donations completely out of policy issues.

The prevailing opinion is that campaign contributions are integral to lobbying efforts and buying access to elected officials.  Have we really sunk to that level in America?  Nashville?  Lobbying and contributing to political candidates should be completely unrelated activities.  Perhaps the state comptroller should investigate the relationship between PAC donations to specific legislators and the amount of time their lobbyists spent with those legislators. It should reveal interesting findings.  It should also be clear how much lobbying effort was directed at the legislative branch and how much was directed at the executive branch, and those political donations as well.  This would be the only way to measure the extent to which contributions really affect the way that policymakers allocate their time, and whether money as a political resource magnifies and perpetuates political inequalities.

Even though it is an ugly secret, there is little doubt that some organizations obtain votes by making campaign contributions.  Thus, lobbying strategies become dependent upon campaign donation strategies.  What transpires in the meetings between legislators and interest groups with PACs can be a matter of inference and speculation.  However, what is not supposition is that legislation favored by those who contribute political donations succeed on a regular basis. Many politicians also form PACs as a way of raising money to help fund other candidates’ campaigns. A common occurrence is money gets funneled to Candidate A via Candidate B, by other special interests or PACS through this method.   Follow the money.

In reality, groups that command non-monetary resources valued by policymakers —policy expertise, access to voters, and influence may be more important than a campaign check.   As labor unions have seen their influence decline, they could likely discover it to the fact they are spending less on lobbying, and more on political giving.   There are smaller victories, and they are having to write bigger checks to secure even those.  It will only escalate and union dues will increase.  The lesson here is obvious.

Clearly, we believe issue advocacy is good, and it is a First Amendment right to express an opinion to policymakers.  We also have no problem with people making political contributions to the candidates of their choice.  What we would like to see is a clearer separation between these two activities, with better monitoring.  Are political campaigns on behalf of candidates engaging in illegally coordinated activities with PACS?  Nobody can be certain.  Should PACs be forced to immediately disclose their donors and campaign expenditures?  Should people who have PACS be required to register to lobby?  It is essential that citizens know who is financing policymakers’ elections.

Professional Educators of Tennessee will continue to lobby for public education.  However, we will never endorse political parties or candidates as an organization on behalf of our members.  We also do not have a PAC, nor do we plan to ever start one.  It would harm our effectiveness.  We must advance public education without the divisive tribalism of partisan politics, and we will only get involved in education related issues.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

 

Never a Wrong Time to Do the Right Thing

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The United States Supreme Court has been busy this week.  I have only been focused on the Janus Case.  The justices ruled 5-4 to prohibit unions from collecting fees in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31. The justices also ruled that workers must affirmatively opt into the union before fees can be taken out of their paychecks.

It will effectively break the cycle where government unions can collect compulsory fees from government workers and then use it to help elect pro-union politicians to achieve and maintain political power — who then empower and enrich the government employee unions.  Think about this for a minute, the unions were arguing in this case: “that government has a duty to financially prop up a private enterprise.”  “In what universe?” the Supreme Court Justices must have thought.  The legal rationale was questionable at best.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in the majority opinion and addressed that directly: “It is hard to estimate how many billions of dollars have been taken from nonmembers and transferred to public-sector unions in violation of the First Amendment. Those unconstitutional exactions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”  Justice Alito then added: “We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

The opinion added: “The First Amendment is violated when money is taken from nonconsenting employees for a public-sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.”

The Tennessee branch of the National Education Association is already saying the ruling will not impact them.  They have already lost almost 35% of their members in the last five years according to the Education Intelligence Agency.  However, the Janus ruling will have an indirect impact, as the unions will have fewer resources, and will undoubtedly be focused (in the short-term) on simply keeping the members they have. The NEA has projected a loss of some 307,000 members over two years if the Janus decision went against public-employee unions, with an expected $50 million two-year budget cut, or 13 percent.  Today’s decision will ultimately reduce the political activity of public sector unions.

Referenced by the Education Intelligence Agency, former Tennessee Education Association employee and Uniserv Coordinator Chris Brooks wrote about the unions: “Many state associations are run by their staffs. Rarely do they engage in meaningful fights at the school or district level. Annual lobby days mobilize a tiny fraction of members. Teachers and school support staff feel only loosely connected to the union.”  Brooks’s former union bosses cannot be happy with his comments.  However, it proves that educators need more effective voices and other organizations to speak up for their interests.

“The unions will call this tortious interference with their business expectancies. Disinterested people will call it an affirmation of individuals’ constitutional rights” according to Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist George Will.  No American worker should be forced to become or remain a union member. People should be free to join, or not join any organization or union they want, without losing their job or be forced to pay for political agendas with which they disagree based on political or ideological purposes.

The Janus Decision will not create drastic structural changes to unions.  It will simply make them more accountable to their own members.  And in the case of teacher unions, this greater accountability should focus on making the quality of education front and center, help public education rebuild support from the public for issues like raising teacher pay and school funding, and work for the common good of all students and educators. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.  The Supreme Court Decision in the Janus Case was the right thing.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.