This past week, Indiana enacted a religious freedom law much like the one that remains under consideration here in Georgia. Despite Governor Mike Pence’s assurances that the bill has nothing to do with discrimination, there was a swift—and very negative—reaction on the part of some in the business community.
Leading the charge was SalesForce.com CEO Marc Benioff, whose Twitter feed, according to the Washington Post “has been an all-out campaign against the new law, with threats to ‘dramatically reduce’ the company’s investment in the state, calls for other tech CEOs and tech industry leaders to vocally oppose the measure, applause for those tech leaders who have come out against it, and ultimately, a decision to cancel all Salesforce programs that would require the company’s employees or customers to travel to Indiana.”
Others have followed suit: Apple CEO Tim Cook, NCAA President Mark Emmert Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, among others, have also issued statements of concern, punctuated by varying levels of passion or, some might say, hysteria.
I get that—apart from those closely-held companies, like Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, whose owners are deeply religious and treat their work as a calling—business as business has no great immediate concern with or interest in religious liberty. Indeed, religion often presents itself in the business world as somewhat of an inconvenience. Employees don’t want to work on their Sabbath or on a religious holiday. They sometimes believe they have a religious duty to dress in a particular way, which may or may not square with the dress code. Or perhaps they have religiously-inspired scruples about performing certain sorts of services, as when a pharmacist doesn’t want to fill a prescription for an abortifacient. To be sure, I would argue that if business owners took a wider view, they might have a greater appreciation for employees who were conscientious and worked hard because, for example, they themselves regarded their work as a calling, or because they belonged to a religious community that held them accountable for their character. But that’s not the point of this essay.
My question here is why so many business leaders reacted so negatively to a law that doesn’t depart significantly from the 1993 federal law that won overwhelming bipartisan support and that already was on the books (either by a positive act of legislation or by judicial interpretation) in twenty-nine other states.
Some business leaders are, I think, simply averse to conflict. When a sympathetic, well-funded, and vocal constituency makes a stink about an issue, when a piece of legislation is “controversial,” they shy away from it as being “bad for business.” They may not be particularly well-informed about the details of the issue, but they do know that there is controversy and conflict, and that’s unlikely to boost their bottom line (unless, I suppose, they’re in the news business).
That certainly explains some of the business opposition to the Indiana bill and its counterparts around the country. Gay rights groups have been vociferous in mischaracterizing the religious liberty legislation as offering a license to discriminate, and their efforts have been aided and abetted by a press that too readily puts “religious liberty” in scare quotes and lazily adopts the “right to discriminate” shorthand in describing the bill. It’s not my purpose here to speculate about the motives of either gay rights groups or reporters in taking this tack. Suffice it to say that they have, and that too many people—among them CEOs who are paid to know better about a good many things—have simply fallen for this ploy.
Other business leaders—I put Marc Benioff and Tim Cook in this category because they have chosen virtual megaphones to trumpet their opposition to this legislation—act less on the basis of reasons connected to their bottom line and more because they are committed to the cause of gay rights and same-sex marriage. I’m the last person to say that they’re not entitled to their opinions and entitled to use any legal means to promote them.
But I’m also entitled to call them out. Let me begin with Tim Cook, who authored (or at least put his name to) an op-ed in the Washington Post. I’ll leave aside the fact that he repeats the entirely predictable mischaracterization of the Indiana bill. He then ties it to what he says are “nearly 100 bills designed to enshrine discrimination in state law.” But the only example he offers is a Texas bill that would, as he puts it, “strip the salaries and pensions of clerks who issue licenses to same-sex couples.” It is indeed a striking piece of legislation that would be unlikely, I think, to survive a legal challenge. But I would be surprised if the bill proposed by a Republican backbencher even came to a vote in the state legislature. So, yes, there are people out there who are seeking legislative means to oppose same-sex marriage, though I think it is illiberal to describe such efforts as “dangerous,” as Cook does. He wants to make it easier for us to get to that adjective by assimilating this brand of religious freedom to racial discrimination:
I remember what it was like to grow up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. Discrimination isn’t something that’s easy to oppose. It doesn’t always stare you in the face. It moves in the shadows. And sometimes it shrouds itself within the very laws meant to protect us.
So there you have it: according to Cook, people who support religious liberty are kinda sorta like the people who supported Jim Crow. Some of them may be; I don’t know. But when you actually read the legislation, which tracks the 1993 federal legislation supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, it’s hard to believe that language endorsed by Senate minority leader-in-waiting Charles Shumer (in the 1993 federal law) and Barack Obama (when he voted for the Illinois RFRA in 1998) is the functional equivalent of Jim Crow.
Then there’s Marc Benioff, who has gone one giant leap beyond editorializing. He has proposed to pull his company’s business from Indiana because of the “anti-gay” (the scare quotes are quite appropriate here) legislation. Interestingly, however, he has not said the same thing about his company’s business in, say, Dubai, whose anti-gay (note there are no scare quotes, since the animus is very real) policies are notably harsh. According to the State Department’s 2013 report on human rights:
Both civil law and sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. Under sharia individuals who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct are subject to the death penalty. Article 177 of Dubai’s penal code allows for up to a 10-year prison sentence for consensual sex. There were prosecutions for consensual same-sex activity during the year. At times the government subjected persons against their will to psychological treatment and counseling for consensual same-sex activity.
At the very least, then, he looks like a hypocrite, since his treatment of jurisdiction in regard to this issue is inconsistent. Perhaps he can explain what good reason there is for treating his fellow Americans more harshly than the citizens of Dubai. He might answer that he has more clout in Indiana than he does in Dubai. Some might call that picking one’s fights wisely. Others might regard it as being a bully.
In the end, businesses will do what they will do. Mostly that means following their bottom lines. If there is business to be done and money to be made, they will do it. At least that’s what they keep telling us. If it’s true, then I have confidence—if only our political leaders displayed some backbone—that threats of boycotts and so on, won’t be long-lasting, and that any vacuum left by a business leader who acts against his company’s interest will be filled by someone else who sees an opportunity. As for the ideologues in the corporate corner offices, I assume that if they act against their company’s economic interests, their shareholders will eventually punish them.
Ain’t capitalism grand?
I have been following the legislative peregrinations of Georgia’s religious liberty (notice that, unlike the Atlanta newspaper, I don’t use “scare quotes” to describe it) legislation with a great deal of interest and concern. There are just a few days left in this year’s session, and I’d love to see the legislature do the right thing and provide additional sensible protection to what we have for a long time called our “first freedom.” I wish I were more confident.
To get you up to speed, let me give you, dear readers, a brief recap of what has happened so far. Different versions of the proposal were filed in the House and in the Senate. The Senate version passed overwhelmingly on March 5th. It now sits before the House, where it will be the subject of a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, March 24th. Proponents and opponents of the legislation have turned up the heat, with RedState/WSB pundit Erick Erickson becoming very vocal in favor of the bill and opponents continuing to claim—wrongly, I would argue—that it is a license to discriminate.
My biggest fear is that some legislators—especially those with the most influence—will simply choose to keep their heads down, seeking to propitiate the noisiest constituency. In this, they will follow the risk- and bad publicity-averse business community. In this connection, the latest straw in the wind is a speech delivered by House Speaker David Ralston to the Atlanta Press Club. Here’s what the Speaker had to say:
That gets the bill title of the year award in my book. And I want to say a few things about that bill today. I have said before: I am talking with and listening to people on both sides of this important issue.
And I will continue to do so. I do not take lightly the importance of protecting a person’s right to worship and express their faith. The framers of both the United States and Georgia constitutions saw this right as paramount. And that’s why we find this protection in our most basic and important and even sacred legal documents.
As with any issue of this magnitude, there’s a lot of misinformation swirling out there through the modern rumor mill that we refer to as social media. Despite what you have heard, I haven’t made my mind up. I am still seeking the right way forward, and I don’t apologize for that.
Some things in our legislative process, unfortunately, do take time to work out. Before we move forward, we have to understand what the impact of this legislation will be on the rule of law in this state. We need to know if this legislation opens the door to unintended consequences of any type, that some may try to exploit.
I take proponents of this measure at their word that discrimination toward anyone is not part of this effort. At the same time, I appreciate the concerns of those who have strong opposition to this legislation.
The good news is that Georgia is a global destination for people from all over the world who want to come visit and for businesses that want to come create jobs. And that is not going to change.
But closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all.”
A few things are worth noting here, beginning with his ironic reference to the bill’s title, which I take to mean that he’s of a mind to adopt the “scare quotes” approach taken by the AJC. Second, I’m certainly willing at the moment to take him at his word when he affirms the importance of religious liberty. Third, his concerns about unintended consequences and the rule of law are certainly appropriate, but, I think, rather easily allayed. We have more than twenty years of experience with a federal RFRA, and I don’t think that any honest observer could assert that that piece of legislation amounts to the greatest threat to the rule of law in America today. (I have other nominees for that prize, but that’s a subject for another day.) Of greatest concern is his final comment: “closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all,” offered in the context of a reference to Georgia’s global business ties. As I said earlier, there are noisy constituencies that insist—loudly and at every turn—that the bill offers a license to discriminate, that it is anti-gay, and that it will, in effect, send a signal to gays and others that Georgia is hostile to them. Under those circumstances, they will simply take their business elsewhere. That line of argument seems greatly to concern the Speaker and his allies in the business community. The easy way out is let the bill die this session, sending a signal that Georgia is still open for business. This is easy because the bill’s proponents are, generally speaking, business-friendly and not given to the kind of “bad behavior”—economic boycotts, threatening people’s jobs, and demonstrating at people’s homes—that folks on the other side have displayed. They’ll still shop at Home Depot and book their tickets on Delta.
There’s bit more to the speech that gives me a little hope and more than a little concern:
In this and other passionate debates, however, there always seems to be a few for whom honest, reasonable, and civil discussion is an alien concept that they are simply not acquainted with. These pundits-for-hire and self-professed thought leaders are not looking to protect anything, or anyone. They seek profit, relevance, and attention by preying on people’s worst fears through loud volume, lies and distortions.
I have no interest in rushing to act on this or any other issue merely to coddle over-inflated egos or help grow someone’s bank account.
Here’s what I propose we do: Let’s all take a deep breath and look at this thing in a reasonable way – and we’ll find the right way that really does what both sides hope to accomplish. Because I believe that at the end of the day, Georgians don’t have time for the politics of personal destruction. They don’t expect us to waste the limited time we have here playing these kinds of games.
As an American, and Georgian, and born-again Christian, I value inclusive discussion. I believe the Old Testament prophet got it right when he said, in the Book of Isiah, ‘Come, let us reason together.’
I don’t expect or demand that the members of the House agree on everything. What I do ask, and what we have done, is debate the issues constructively…
The AJC reporter believes that the Speaker’s remarks are largely directed at Erick Erickson, who (as I noted earlier) has turned up the volume in favor of the bill. Erickson may well have hit a nerve, but he’s hardly the only participant in the debate who may have crossed a line or two in promoting a favored position. I wish that the commentary here were more even-handedly directed at transgressors on both sides, rather than focusing much of the ire against a perhaps overzealous supporter of the legislation. Then I’d be more confident in the Speaker’s willingness to “reason together.”
I’ll close by noting an argument proffered by AJC columnist Kyle Wingfield: if the bill is killed this year, it will surely come back next year, after a Supreme Court decision that will likely create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, with even more heat and less light surrounding it. Genuine friends of religious liberty don’t want it tied too intimately to the hot button social issue of the day. If David Ralston is a genuine friend of religious liberty, he could do much worse than take Wingfield’s advice. Bring it to a vote this year, for next year the acrimony and vitriol will only be worse.
Update: After yesterday’s hearing, some are speculating that the House will approve an alternative to the Senate version that narrowly tailors protections to faith-based non-profits, specifically excluding for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby, whose owners have religious scruples about contraceptives or abortifacients, for example. I would rather see a robust protection of religious liberty, even in the marketplace. And I would prefer, even more, that people display enough respect for the religious scruples of their fellow citizens that they wouldn’t demand that a business owner act against his or her conscience. But I, personally, would prefer some legislative protection to none at all. I remain persuaded by Kyle Wingfield’s argument that, in the next legialtive session, after a likely Supreme Court decision, getting even a narrow religious liberty bill will be exceedingly difficult. And I am acutely aware how hard it is to persuade the Georgia legislature—even when it’s controlled by people who identify themselves as conservatives—to pass sensible legislation that takes reasonable account of the role of religion in our culture and civilization.
This article is the first in a series of posts that will address key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia, as discussed in the overview report, Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia.
By Aundrea Gregg and Eric Wearne
For each student in Georgia, education is a personal experience that will ultimately impact his or her life’s circumstances and opportunities as an adult. Students who matriculate from high school on to college graduation and careers greatly increase their earning potential as adults and are less likely to experience family breakdown, need government assistance, and become entangled in the legal system than those who fall through the cracks.
In Georgia, however, the number of students who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, almost 1 out of every 3 Georgians does not graduate from high school in four years, placing Georgia 48th in the country.
For students who do graduate high school, many still leave inadequately prepared for the demands of universities and Georgia’s industries. In 2011, Complete College America reported that 18% of freshman entering 4-year universities in Georgia required remediation in at least one subject area. Another 37% of freshmen entering 2-year colleges required remediation as well. The need for remediation not only significantly lowers the likelihood of completing a degree program; it also comes at an annual cost of millions to the state.
As educational attainment in K-12 and college sets the stage for placement in the workforce, reports have noted the discord between high school and college graduates’ preparedness and employers’ expectations for new hires.
Whether in search of applicants with rudimentary skills, such as the ability to arrive on time every day, or applicants in possession of the skills to fill advanced technical positions, approximately 5,000 jobs in Georgia remain unfilled in 2015 due in part to a “skills gap.” A study in Michigan found that businesses across the state spend about $222 million each year correcting the shortcomings of their employees who leave high school without the basic skills needed for their job. Given the exorbitant cost, it is understandable why employers in Georgia would not want to spend time training employees for skills they should already possess.
Something More Than Academics
Providing access to quality education from the start of kindergarten all the way through high school and beyond is of course necessary for Georgia’s citizens to thrive and prosper.
To narrow the gaps, major reforms have focused almost exclusively on improving student achievement by employing more rigorous academic standards in schools, as measured by reading and math scores. Though academic achievement is certainly vital to success, this narrowed paradigm for student advancement has done little to change the status quo regarding outcomes.
A Gray Area
Grade Point Averages (GPA), scores on the SAT, and completion of state exit exams are all black and white expectations on the pathway to college and a career. Probably more important, however, are the challenges students face in terms of cultivating themselves as individuals, of forming the habits that support personal growth, and of fashioning an early idea of what their purpose in life will be.
With a wider and more abstract understanding of readiness, motivation, responsibility, planning and decision-making, Georgia can begin to define a current gray area of learning needs that have been underdeveloped in K-12 schools.
Not “Soft Skills” – Necessary Noncognitive Factors
The term “soft skills” has long been used to describe non-academic learning factors that aid students’ ability to grasp content knowledge. There is, however, nothing soft about the personal traits such as perseverance and self-control; skills such as time management and goal setting; and interventions such as attachment to community and access to support systems that shape a student’s mindset for learning, both positively and negatively.
This wide package of traits and tools comprise what have been commonly referred to in a large body of research as noncognitive factors. While noncognitive factors have been given credence as important components of student success, there are very few programs and policies that encourage their development in students, schools, and communities.
This post seeks to explain the importance of these skills and propose recommendations that support their development in K-12 settings in Georgia.
The Value of Developing Noncognitive Factors
Preparing students to succeed in school and life requires the development of two sets of skills: cognitive abilities that constitute what is often referred to as hard knowledge, as well as noncognitive factors that help individuals apply that knowledge. Whereas cognitive functions include processes such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering, noncognitive factors include a person’s aptitude for planning, emotional maturity, interpersonal interactions, and communication skills – both verbal and nonverbal.
Noncognitive factors largely shape a person’s behavior and greatly influence their ability to function in educational settings. For students with a strong base of noncognitive factors, such as strong study habits, eagerness to ask questions, positive self-image, and determination to reach goals, just to name a few, the ability to bridge knowledge gained in the classroom with actual success increases substantially.
Further, research led by the Center for the Economics of Education concluded that noncognitive factors can be a strong predictor of compatible occupations, wage potential, and the likelihood of risky behavior as an adult.
Noncognitive Factors Chart
||Realistic Self- Appraisal
||Planning & Decision Making
||Constructive Time Management
||Connection to Strong Support Person
||Caring School Environment
Noncognitive Factors and College and Career Readiness
Noncognitive factors are becoming more prominent considerations in college admissions and hiring processes across the country. This is largely due to institutions of higher learning and employers desiring candidates that possess abilities that extend beyond mastery of math and English.
Research led by Dr. William Sedlacek, a foremost expert on noncognitive variables and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Maryland, highlights that assessing noncognitive abilities in admissions processes is an important basis for colleges and employers to discern intelligences beyond those tested on standardized exams such as the SAT.
One practical example of this is the applicant assessment board for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. This project has focused entirely on evaluating noncognitive factors to discover students’ experiential intelligence – the ability to interpret information in a changing context or be creative – and contextual intelligence – the ability to adapt to changing environments and negotiate within a system. While neither of these intelligences is tested on the SAT, which only examines knowledge learned in a fixed context, the Gates’ board has had some success selecting students ready to perform in rigorous academic settings at institutions of higher learning. It should also be noted that Gates Scholars include demographics with statically lower chances of reaching college graduation such as first-generation college goers, low-income, and minority students.
As the consideration of noncognitive factors has allowed institutions to rethink admissions, hiring, and retention strategies, their recognized importance as a critical component of college and career readiness has increased for all students.
Opportunity: Building Strong Relationships between Schools and Students
As a means to develop noncognitive abilities, students require access to small-scale connections. Dr. Sedlacek, in his list of noncognitive variables, emphasizes strong support systems – specifically “a strong support person” that students can turn to to provide guidance on common child-to-adult transition situations. Emphasizing this point, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D notes in her acclaimed book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “support systems are simply networks of relationships.”
Why Relationships Matter
Fostering personal, strong relationships between teachers and students and even schools and families is important for many reasons. On the most basic level, establishing trust, communication, and understanding – all commonly accepted components of a healthy relationship – are prerequisite to creating environments in schools where students will thrive and parents participate.
Teachers who know their students personally are better equipped to tailor lesson plans and speak directly to specific needs. For historically disadvantaged groups such as young men of color and first generation college students, accessing mentors at school where familiarity with the college process is limited at home is key to closing persistent educational gaps.
Barriers to Opportunity
Noncognitive traits develop most prominently during early childhood, and parents play an important role in developing the noncognitive abilities of their children. Though noncognitive factors are more malleable, even during later stages in life, home life matters greatly and students may miss development of these skills due to issues such as family breakdown or poor socio-economic circumstances (as education levels of parents also factor into development).
While active parental involvement and a stable home environment are foundational to the noncognitive skills training that should take place in school, unfortunately, not all children in Georgia find the role models they need at home.
Though it only takes the support of one invested adult to guide a child, studies find that the representation of two parents in the home can greatly increase a child’s educational attainment. One study found in examining a sample of children who completed eighth grade that high school graduation rates were 90 percent for those in two-married-biological-parent families, 75 percent for those in single-mother-divorced families, and 69 percent for those in single-mother-never-married families. Similarly, when it comes to college attendance, 71 percent of children who live with two married, biological parents went on to college, while only half of children living with only their mothers took this route.
Increasing parental involvement in early childhood development, as well as maintaining positive relationships between parents and between parents and their children remains a paramount barrier to improving outcomes for students in K-12 and in adulthood.
Academic Attainment Rules
As it currently stands within many schools and school systems, the focus on noncognitive factors is embedded haphazardly through character education hours or small discussions about the need to build study habits. In fact, many of the habits and skills colleges and employers deem most valuable, are often addressed as periphery learning needs and go underdeveloped through curricula.
The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research notes, “teachers would play a vital role in helping students move from being passive recipients of academic content to active learners” who wield noncognitive abilities to progress through elevated academic challenges and, more importantly, demonstrate understanding in real world situations. To do this, focused development of noncognitive factors must parallel instruction on hard content in schools.
More rigorous academic standards remains the exclusive focus of schools because educational institutions are incentivized to worry about themselves as institutions, or on policy as an abstract, and not on students as individuals. In other words, policymaking has become too big in education and it incentivizes the wrong things. Schools worry about test scores. Much like colleges and universities worry about enrollment and sometimes retention, these are all measures that point back on the institutions, but say nothing about how well-prepared their students are to move on to college or a career. There remains an opportunity to better prepare Georgia’s students for college and careers by shifting more of the focus in schools from increasing academic standards to cultivating noncognitive factors.
Recommendations: What is Working
Continue Research on Strengthening Families and Communities
The importance of a stable home life cannot be stated enough in the process of cultivating noncognitive factors for Georgia’s children, although the impact of family breakdown and what to be done about this problem remain outside of the scope of this paper. Below are recommendations from Georgia Center for Opportunity’s College & Career Pathways Working Group regarding what is being done and what might be replicated within existing structures.
Intrusive Advising at All Levels of Schooling
Paul Tough highlights in his recent New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate?” the powerful feelings of stress that at-risk students can feel without the assistance of parents and mentors to mitigate minor bumps in the road. The point is made how quickly a first failing mark or trouble with a roommate can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and premature dropping out.
Educational institutions such as Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) and Paine College in Augusta, GA have begun to employ new advising strategies that combine personal relationship building with “tough love” to ensure at-risk students understand challenges that are common in college, reprogram bad habits, and overcome obstacles to stay on track for graduation.
Model: Georgia Gwinnett College
As an institution with an access mission, GGC’s students enroll with varying levels of preparedness for college. For instance, 30-40% of CCG’s incoming students enroll in at least one remedial class, meaning a large cross-section of students is off track to graduate from the start. To safeguard the large at-risk population, GGC’s administration has made it a point to increase access to teachers and administration. The school boasts no office hours, students may arrange meetings at any time, and students are given the (school issued) mobile number of every professor.
Additionally, through GGC’s intrusive advising programs, students who have already been placed on academic probation or worse receive a second chance to reach graduation. Under the watchful eyes of counselors, teachers, and peer coaches, students receive intense, regular engagement, mandatory tutoring and workshops, as well as student success classes.
While tactics such as intrusive advising remain largely isolated in the higher education realm and for at-risk students, these strategies could greatly influence college and career strategies for all students in K-12. At GGC, these “high engagement, individual focused efforts” created to serve a substantially high-need population have shown some success in student retention and graduation.
Parallel to the development of vital traits and skills at home, schools and communities are equally important places where students hone the necessary skills they will need for adulthood. Ideally parents, schools, and communities should work together to develop these noncognitive factors on all fronts. Schools and institutions would be well-served by taking these developmental gaps into account and addressing them formally.
Strong, healthy relationships between teachers and students, schools and families can be the x-factor that allows students to reach success. Interventions must extend beyond rigorous academic standards. Cultivating noncognitive factors through K-12 provides a more holistic approach to college and career readiness.
Critics of Educational Savings Accounts often raise the issue of the constitutional challenges of using taxpayer funds to purchase private education.
Recently, Jason Bedrick of the CATO Institute and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation highlighted this issue in their article published in National Affairs, writing, “While the United States Supreme Court has ruled that publicly funded school vouchers are constitutional under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, most state constitutions contain a version of the so-called ‘Blaine Amendment,’ which bars state aid to parochial schools.”
The Blaine Amendments owe their name to James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who proposed a U.S. constitutional amendment in 1875 prohibiting states from funding religious education. The amendment’s original intent was to prevent Catholics from acquiring taxpayer support for their schools. While his proposed amendment failed to become part of the U.S. Constitution, more than two-thirds of the 50 states adopted their own constitutional amendments barring state funding of religious organizations that include schools, which have come to be known as the Blaine Amendments.
To understand how the Blaine Amendments affect ESAs in Georgia, a recent report written by GCO Scholar Dr. Eric Wearne and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation provides important insight on this issue:
In recent decades, these [Blaine] amendments have been interpreted by some to be prohibitions against any use of state funds for any schools other than public schools, and to prevent public funding of other faith-based initiatives, of any kind. Georgia’s Blaine Amendment reads:
…[n]o money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution. Ga. Const. art. I, § II, ¶ VII.
However, Title 20 of the Georgia Constitution also states that,
Educational assistance programs authorized. (a) Pursuant to laws now or hereafter enacted by the General Assembly, public funds may be expended for any of the following purposes:
(1) To provide grants, scholarships, loans, or other assistance to students and to parents of students for educational purposes.
ESAs avoid many of the legal issues that may arise through other programs, such as vouchers and tuition tax credits… Matthew Ladner argues that “It is unlikely that ESAs would ever be less constitutionally robust than vouchers. … Designing programs so that the aid has multiple uses and is clearly under the complete control of parents can only help or be neutral in a constitutional challenge.” Though vouchers have been held to be constitutional under certain conditions by the U.S. Supreme Court, ESAs may avoid even these challenges.”
Bedrick and Burke argue this point even further:
The example of Arizona is encouraging on this point for advocates of ESAs. Despite having previously struck down vouchers, in March 2014 the Arizona Supreme Court declined to review an appeals-court decision upholding the state’s ESA law. The court distinguished the ESAs from vouchers because the latter “set aside state money to allow students to attend private schools” whereas under the ESA law, “the state deposits funds into an account from which parents may draw to purchase a wide range of services” and “none of the ESA funds are pre-ordained for a particular destination.”
Given the precedent set by the Arizona Supreme Court and the authority granted by Title 20 of the Georgia Constitution, supporters of ESAs should not allow themselves to worry too much concerning the constitutionality of this innovative program.
 See, for example, the current challenge to Georgia’s Tax Credit program. http://reason.com/archives/2014/05/07/georgia-school-choice-legal-challenge
While education plays a tremendous role in shaping individual life outcomes, the number of students in Georgia who do not advance beyond K-12 remains astronomically high. Over 1 in 5 young adults in Georgia are not attending school, not working, and have no degree beyond high school. Additionally, in 2014, more than 33,000 students did not graduate. Of those who go on to college, nearly 40 percent do not finish in four years.
To promote solutions that will give more Georgians a real chance to prosper, GCO convened a working group of education professionals as part of the College and Career Pathways Initiative. Comprised of K-12, postsecondary, and local business leaders, the group sought to contextualize barriers faced by students, parents, and schools of varying circumstances across the state.
Through a series of nine meetings, the group not only considered the academic needs of readiness, such as rigorous learning standards, and systemic barriers, such as recruiting and preparing quality teachers, the group also considered the philosophical underpinnings of readiness such as the relationship between education and fulfilling one’s purpose in life.
The following report serves as an overview of the themes and key issues covered by GCO’s College and Career Pathways working group. Major themes include the importance for Georgia to:
- Move away from big policy as a means of education reform
- Empower schools to take the reins of innovation and reform
- Help students develop healthy habits through strong relational ties
Through the lens of the themes described above, GCO plans to publish over the coming months a series of reports addressing key issues impacting college and career readiness in Georgia. These issues include:
- Measuring noncognitive variables in school and building small-scale relationships
- Improving accountability measures in Georgia’s schools
- Education reimagined through blended learning models
- Increasing experimentation and creativity in teacher preparation: Creating “the missing institution”
To read the full report, click here: Fortifying Pathways: Themes to Guide College and Career Readiness in Georgia