A few weeks ago, Wired magazine editor Joe Pugliese told readers a story that should sound familiar to anyone who followed the careers of computer icons Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: Pugliese almost didn’t finish college because life outside the classroom was more interesting.
“By the time I was 20 I had found full-time work as a designer, and I was serially ditching class in favor of time at the office,” Pugliese wrote in the September issue. “Prerequisites and lecture halls seemed like a distraction from the place where I knew I was learning the most—the real word.”
Today, students across the globe can learn in more ways than we can count, from books to YouTube videos to free online classes hosted by Harvard and MIT to computers installed on the sidewalk (even Wired magazine has partnered with the University of Southern California to create a graduate program). To better prepare every child for a successful future, parents, lawmakers, and educators need a new definition for what it means to learn. And one classroom might not be enough for a student.
Had Pugliese’s teachers recognized he was bored, clearly they would have tried to make their lessons more useful for the “real world.” No educator wants his students to be unprepared for life. Horace Mann inscribed the mission of generations of educators when he called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” a phrase U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would repeat some 150 years later.
Yet how can education fulfill this noble treatise if schools can’t keep students in the classroom, or the very least, interested in the classroom?
Today, public education’s challenge is not just to limit the number of students dropping out of school, though that is critical. The percentage of students dropping out has been nearly cut in half since 1990, from 12 percent to 7 percent.
The implications of this decrease are profound. For example, black men of working-age (20 to 34) without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than employed, according to Pew research. A diploma may have far-reaching effects for these men.
But just attending school or even finishing high school isn’t enough. Students need to be challenged and inspired by learning experiences that meet their needs so that they can have a chance at the American Dream.
Education savings accounts provide parents and their children with the flexibility to choose from multiple learning options at the same time. As this blog has explained, education savings accounts, now law in five states, are bank accounts complete with debit cards that allow families to buy educational products and services for their children.
In Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada, eligible families have more educational options than just their child’s assigned public school. The state deposits funding in each account, and families can pay for personal tutors, textbooks and curricular materials like science kits, online classes, private school tuition, and college classes. Families can even save money from year to year.
In Arizona, the Howard family uses Nathan’s account to pay for tutoring services and private school tuition. The Visser family educates Jordan at home, swiping his education savings account card with different vendors in order to combine therapy services and educational instruction. The McMurray family uses the accounts to participate in extracurricular activities offered by a public school. Research finds that more than one-third of accountholders use their education savings account for multiple learning options.
This is the future of learning. For some students, it may just be a new school. Or a tutor to help them keep up with their classmates. For others, it could mean enrolling in classes offered on the other side of the world or using an iPad—with a data plan—to learn math with an app.
Education savings accounts allow for one or all of these options. Every Georgia child should have access to the future of learning.
Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
Recently, a broad coalition of groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to require the Attorney General to “review and reconsider” a “flawed” Office of Legal Counsel memo—issued in 2007 (i.e., during the Bush Administration)—that argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided the basis for exempting faith-based organizations that contracted with the government from legal requirements that forbid taking religion into account in certain hiring decisions. The letter asserts that the memo relies on “flawed legal analysis” and offers a “broad and erroneous,” indeed “dangerous,” “interpretation of RFRA,” “permitting the grantee to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer funds without regard to the government’s compelling interest in prohibiting such discrimination.”
This is just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle. Here’s a snippet of something I wrote about it ten years ago:
One of the central bones of legislative contention, evident once again in the recent House debate over the Workforce Investment Act, is connected with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which exempts faith-based organizations from legal strictures against religious discrimination. Churches and other faith-based organizations are, in other words, permitted to take religion into account when they hire employees, a provision upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos.
Opponents of the [Bush Administration’s] faith-based initiative cry foul when this legal exemption is explicitly extended to government contractors, as it was in the original  charitable choice legislation, and as it has been proposed in several recent pieces of legislation. They want no part, they say, of government-funded religious discrimination, regardless of what religious groups are permitted to do on their own dimes.
The arguments, or rather slogans, of those opposed to the religious hiring rights of faith-based government contractors haven’t really changed. Taking religion into account is, they insist, discrimination, made worse by the fact that those engaging in it are taking government dollars.
The current version of the dispute involves the way in which the OLC memo deploys the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on behalf—of all things—the religious liberty of government contractors. RFRA—passed overwhelmingly during the Clinton Administration but recently by and large abandoned by those on the political Left—requires that laws and regulations that limit religious freedom be justified by a compelling state interest and represent the least restrictive means to attain that interest. It is supposed to provide individuals and organizations a basis for claiming an exemption on generally applicable laws that burden their religious liberty. Most frequently such claims would be made in court and weighed by a judge. The OLC memo represents an administrative, rather than a judicial, determination that even laws that explicitly prohibit government contractors from hiring in accordance with religious criteria—not discriminating against people, but hiring those who support the mission of the organization (a right, by the way, that would seem uncontroversial in almost any other setting)—have to accommodate the religious freedom of the contractors.
You might ask how an Administration could defy the express will of Congress if it passes a law that forbids taking religion into account when hiring for participation in a particular government-funded program. The answer to this question begins with the following consideration: unless the law explicitly repudiates RFRA, the executive is charged with enforcing both laws and reading them in a way that renders them, so far as possible, consistent with one another. So the executive must first ask, in accordance with RFRA, whether the burden on religious freedom represented by the hiring prohibition represents a compelling state interest. The most obvious answer is that, since there are plenty of laws that actually acknowledge the religious hiring rights of government contractors, denying those rights in this instance can’t be a compelling state interest. In other words, RFRA trumps the prohibition in the law.
What’s more, I think that this conclusion is not only good law, but also good policy. Let me summarize the argument I made at greater length ten years ago. A diverse country is best served, not by a uniform, monolithic, and homogeneous social service sector, but by an array of organizations that represent genuinely different approaches to addressing our social problems. A healthy civil society is a diverse civil society. Government should respect and foster that diversity rather than diminish it. The demand that “government not fund discrimination”—usually connected with a demand that government expand its programs for the needy—is for all intents and purposes a demand that government secularize society, that nongovernmental organizations be simple extensions of their government sponsors. This isn’t good for the needy or for the society at large.
Let’s hope that the Obama Administration continues to ignore the importuning of those whose crabbed view of religious liberty would increasingly diminish the role of religion in society.
Perla Macias pulled her son, Albiery, out of their local school in Arizona because he was not getting the attention Perla thought he needed to succeed. “It was sad because he didn’t even want to go to school some days,” Perla says.
Perla is like every mom—she wants the best for her children in and out of school. Fortunately for Perla and Albiery, they live in one of five states where lawmakers have allowed students to use education savings accounts to find unique learning experiences that may include online classes, personal tutors, private schools, public school classes, and college savings plans, among other uses, all with the same account.
With an education savings account, the state deposits public funds in a private account that parents use to purchase educational products and services for their child. In 2015, Georgia lawmakers considered legislation that would have allowed state families to use the accounts, but the legislation stalled.
Albiery’s new school has brought out his interests in new subjects, and Perla is excited to use his account to support him with whatever he needs to succeed. “He wants to be an architect, and I’m so happy for that,” Perla says.
In this three-part series, the Georgia Center for Opportunity will explain why Georgia needs to give parents this flexible educational option, how education savings accounts change the way we think about learning, and how the accounts work in states that have already enacted laws: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada.
Georgia families, like those all over the country, need better learning options. Student achievement scores should trouble Georgia parents. According to researchers, students in 30 developed countries outpace Georgia 15-year-olds in math. Among families where at least one parent finished college, students from 31 nations perform better than Georgia students.
In reading, two-thirds of the state’s fourth graders score below the basic level set by the U.S. Department of Education. By eighth grade, nearly 70 percent read below the basic level.
Yet in a poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution in January 2015, 30 percent of respondents rated Georgia public schools as “excellent” or “good,” while another 38 percent rated them as “fair.” Sixty-eight percent of Georgia schools cannot be doing a fair job or better if almost three-quarters of their students aren’t.
Every child should have access to a school that will challenge him and prepare him for the future. But the labor market is changing quickly. The skills individuals will need to know in order to have a successful career are impossible to predict over the long term.
A recent study by Young Invincibles, a group that researches trends among Millennials, found that the jobs most likely to set Millennials up for success are physician’s assistants, actuaries, statisticians, and biomedical engineers. These careers will require a solid educational background in K-12 and college and even graduate school.
Families can use education savings accounts to save money from year to year, pay for college classes before and during their student’s postsecondary years, and pay for graduate school. This way, students can learn skills before, during, and after college that will help them in their careers.
This feature of the accounts is why families like Perla and Albiery’s can talk about college. And life after college. “I think it has been very good for our family,” Perla says.
Georgia students deserve the same opportunities to find success in school and in life. Education savings accounts can help give this chance to every Georgia child.
Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
By now, almost everyone who isn’t a Democratic United States Senator has seen at least one of the five macabre videotapes released by the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life investigative group. The videos are ubiquitous in social media, so I won’t provide links to them here.
In a recent post, AJC columnist Jay Bookman has provided a nice example of the arguments offered by those who continue to defend Planned Parenthood in the face of these—to say the least—embarrassing revelations. Here are his five points, together with my responses.
1. Nothing in the tapes provides evidence of illegal, let alone criminal, behavior. Planned Parenthood is allowed by law to recover its costs in collecting, preserving and transporting that tissue, and there is no evidence it violated that law. Tellingly, and despite the melodramatic complaints of conservatives, the videos have so far resulted in no criminal investigation or prosecution by state or federal authorities. Yelling and the beating of chests doesn’t alter that basic fact. Fabricated outrage doesn’t change that. Simply put, in legal terms there is no “there” there.
Not so fast, Mr. Bookman. The Planned Parenthood representatives are indeed cagey and circumspect and there is, to be sure, no straightforward smoking gun, but like all bureaucrats, they seem to know that there are expenses and then there are expenses. It may take a lot of trouble to untangle what’s a genuine “cost” and what amounts to a profit over and above costs. That the Department of Justice or a federal prosecutor hasn’t yet commenced an investigation doesn’t mean that the DOJ or a D.A. won’t, though given the track record of this Administration with respect to abortion, I’m not holding my breath. A real federal investigation may have to await a new Administration, or a Congressional investigation that forces the current Attorney General’s hand. So there is nothing at all “telling” about the lack of federal action so far. And if I’m not mistaken, at least twelve states have commenced investigations.
2. The law making such research legal was passed in 1993, and among those voting in favor of that bill was one Mitch McConnell, the same man who now claims that videos documenting what he voted to make legal “absolutely shock the conscience.” Other current GOP senators who backed that ’93 law were Richard Shelby, John McCain, Dan Coats, Chuck Grassley, Thad Cochran and Orrin Hatch, many of whom are now backing a shutdown.
Even if the research is authorized by law, it’s one thing to consider that research in the abstract, another altogether to confront graphically what it means and requires (the dissection of a recognizably human body). Perhaps the law needs to be changed. And even if we decide not to change the law that permits the research, there’s no reason why we have to fund either it or the organization that provides the human organs on which the researchers work.
3. Those receiving the fetal tissue are not ghouls of some sort, and the tissue is not being put to inappropriate or disrespectful use. To the contrary, the tissue is crucial to research into treatments to extend and improve human life, research that would be impossible to conduct without that material. As the New York Times reports, “the National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on research using fetal tissue in 2014 with grants to more than 50 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale and the University of California in Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.”
While we aren’t necessarily talking about Dr. Josef Mengele here, why must we assume a congruence between the demands of science and “democratic” morality? A careful reading of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis—the great work on science and politics written by the greatest and most perspicuous thinker on that subject—makes it clear enough for anyone who has eyes to see that there’s a pretty significant disconnect between science and ordinary morality. Curiosity and the ambition to master nature can take one pretty far from what’s decent and respectful. The more powerful science is, the greater mastery of nature it promises us, the more attention we must pay to it and the less we should avert our eyes from its practices. There may be benefits—which, by the way, are at the moment for the most part simply speculative—that aren’t worth the cost.
4. All tissue used in that research is donated by clinic patients, who receive no compensation for doing so. Their sole motive is to help fellow human beings. If we ban the use of such material in research, we accomplish absolutely nothing except to halt that potentially life-saving research. So which is the true “pro-life” position?
As C.S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man, there’s a moral cost in treating human beings as meat, or of denying the humanity of a being that is recognizably human. In so doing, we run the palpable risk of dehumanizing ourselves, of numbing our moral sense. Indeed, Lewis’s work ought to be absolutely required reading for anyone who wishes to comment intelligently on these issues.
5. None of the $500 million in federal funding going to Planned Parenthood is used to finance abortions. It is used instead to give low-income women access to contraceptives, maternity care, breast-cancer and ovarian-cancer screenings, and vaccinations against sexually transmitted diseases. If we strip Planned Parenthood of funding for such programs as punishment for the “crime” of following the law and providing tissue for medical research, no other organization has the infrastructure, personnel and training to provide those health-care services. In effect, those women and their children would be the innocent victims of a successful effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
While there may not be a single national organization capable of picking up the slack of PPFA’s arguably overstated non-abortion business, the federal funding that it receives can be put to precisely the same use by a myriad of community health centers and nonprofits in the health, not the abortion, business all over the country. Indeed, the proposed Senate bill preserves every penny of women’s health funding, mandating simply that it go to health clinics, not abortion clinics.
I’ve mentioned two pieces of what I regard as required background reading. Let me close with a third, Dr. Leon Kass’ classic, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”:
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted-though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.
On July 25th, AJC columnist Jay Bookman dismissed Georgia House Speaker David Ralston’s “Pastor Protection Bill” as an essentially meaningless symbolic gesture. I’m uncharacteristically inclined to agree with him.
In its current form the bill simply states that “[n]o minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion.” This would seem to follow pretty directly from the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause, as University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber has observed.
While I’m not averse to symbolism and, indeed, regard it as an important teaching function of the law, the prospect that pastors will actually be compelled to perform same-sex marriages is a remote one. To be sure, in our current circumstances anything is possible, but that’s not one of the pressing concerns keeping me up at night.
Here are the things that, to my mind, are causes of concern:
- The tax-exempt status of churches and other faith-based institutions that remain faithful to the traditional understanding of marriage
- The eligibility of faith-based institutions (above all, schools, universities, and social service agencies) to compete on a level playing field for government funding if they continue to act in accordance with their long-held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman
- The ability of churches and other faith-based institutions—if they so choose—to demand doctrinal and behavioral conformity, not just of ministers, but of all employees
In a nutshell, I’m concerned that we’re facing a significant challenge to the ability of churches and other faith-based institutions to remain theologically and morally faithful while fully and equally participating in civil society.
And before I discuss these substantive concerns in a bit more detail, let me add a procedural worry. I fear that Speaker Ralston and many other Republicans, having been chastened by the religious freedom contretemps earlier this year in Indiana, Georgia, and elsewhere, will regard this pastor protection legislation as all they need to do. If true friends of religious liberty accept this down payment on a robust commitment to our first freedom as the full price, they will have left our religious institutions vulnerable to all sorts of threats. I recognize that some of my concerns will have to be addressed at the federal level by something like the First Amendment Defense Act, but there is no reason why Georgia could not provide similar protections at the state level. And I also recognize that laws are mere parchment barriers, weaker than constitutional provisions (which may themselves be no more than papier-mâché); neither will protect religious liberty from a public (or an elite) that has grown indifferent or hostile to it.
I turn now to the challenges, beginning with tax-exempt status. During the oral arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli conceded to Justice Samuel Alito that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that uphold the traditional understanding of marriage is “certainly going to be an issue.” The dissenters took note of this exchange. Chief Justice John Roberts said this:
Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage.… There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court.
Justice Clarence Thomas seconded this concern:
Numerous amici—even some not supporting the States—have cautioned the Court that its decision here will “have unavoidable and wide-ranging implications for religious liberty.” … In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well…. Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.
Justice Samuel Alito spoke of the larger consequences of the Court’s decision:
Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences.
It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women … The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.
Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected.… We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.
Let me emphasize this last point, for it is a clear allusion to the context of Justice Alito’s exchange with the Solicitor General, which involved the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the IRS’s revocation of the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University over its policy forbidding interracial dating. If the analogy—insisted upon by the Court’s majority—between opposition to same-sex marriage and opposition to interracial marriage holds, then the former amounts to the same sort of bigotry as the latter and, perhaps, deserves the same legal treatment.
In the Bob Jones case, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause does not protect the University from the IRS’s revocation of its tax exempt status. The Court’s reasoning was that, in the first place, tax exempt status is granted under the Internal Revenue Code only to institutions and organizations that “serve a public purpose” and are not “contrary to established public policy.” While the University might well serve a public purpose, augmenting or supplanting public efforts at higher education, its practice of racial discrimination was certainly contrary to established public policy. And if free exercise claims, in the best instance, require strict scrutiny, overcoming racial discrimination is surely the kind of compelling state interest that justifies an abridgement of that right.
It doesn’t require much imagination or legal expertise to see how this line of reasoning could be applied to churches and other faith-based institutions that act “contrary to established public policy” in upholding the traditional understanding of marriage.
This doesn’t mean that the IRS must or will revoke their tax exempt status, only that it can, and that the First Amendment provides no sure defense against that action. If countering discrimination based on sexual orientation comes to be regarded as a compelling state interest, then the free exercise rights of religious institutions will likely have to give way if the IRS bows to the pressure that will surely be brought to bear on it to use its powers for that end.
I think that a case can be made on behalf of continuing to extend those exemptions, both in terms of the manifold human needs all churches address and in terms of preserving the pluralism that is the essential ground of free institutions and a free people, but we have to make that case over and over again, in the face of a faction that isn’t particularly interested in listening to it. I take some solace from the fact, that, at the moment, public opinion seems to favor religious freedom, but that delicate flower needs to be carefully cultivated.
Now, if tax exemptions are a problem, then you know eligibility for government grants will be. To be sure, this isn’t an issue for houses of worship as houses of worship (which, generally speaking are not and should not be eligible for government grants), but it is one for schools and colleges, as well as for social service agencies. While the Supreme Court has frequently upheld the channeling of government aid to religious institutions under certain circumstances (see, for example, Mitchell v. Helms, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, and the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization case), it has also held that governments are perfectly within their rights to deny otherwise generally available aid and facilities to religious organizations (see, for example, Locke v. Davey and CLS v. Martinez).
Governments can attach any number of conditions to the aid they provide. Adoption agencies may be required to place children with couples without regard to the gender of the partners. Universities may be required to provide housing—if they provide it at all—to couples that are married in the eyes of the state, regardless of whether those marriages have the sanction of the sponsoring religious body. And if you put the recent EEOC ruling on sexual orientation together with the way in which the Department of Education is interpreting Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, it’s pretty easy to see how a lot of government money could be riding on conformity with what appears to be the new normal in regard to sexual orientation and marriage.
For higher education institutions, access to government money is a big deal. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, 55% of spending on undergraduate education in 2009-10 came from federal aid (which amounted to $124 billion that year). While there are a few colleges (Hillsdale and Grove City, for example) that take pride in not accepting a dime of federal money, most would at the moment not be able to survive without it.
Again, this doesn’t have to happen. Congress could pass legislation that protects religious freedom, or agencies could voluntarily refrain from impinging on it. But pressure will be brought to bear on behalf of those who, as they would put it, don’t want to subsidize discrimination.
This brings me to my next concern, the religious hiring rights of churches and faith-based organizations. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act permits them to take religion into account when hiring. And the “ministerial exception” based in the First Amendment—recently vindicated in the Hosanna-Tabor case—means that a number of federal laws granting employees enforceable rights cannot be applied to those a church holds out as ministers. But these provisions do not provide comprehensive protection of religious hiring rights. There is certainly a gap between the legislatively-acknowledged right to hire coreligionists and the constitutionally-grounded ministerial exception. What if someone who signs a statement of faith as a condition of employment comes out as gay and/or enters into a same-sex marriage? Unlike the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the recent EEOC ruling about sexual orientation discrimination does not contain exceptions for religious organizations. It isn’t at all clear that Courts will find that the Free Exercise Clause will protect them from EEOC complaints, in the event that these organizations choose to enforce doctrinal or behavioral requirements on their employees.
Now, this parade of horribles does not have to march into our sanctuaries. The threats that loom on the horizon do not have to materialize. Those who currently hold the upper hand in government may practice forbearance, either out of a genuine commitment to pluralism and religious freedom or out a fear of overplaying their hand and alienating public opinion.
We on our part must be both vigilant and winsome, vigorously defending and advocating for our rights when they are threatened and offering a model of the charity and forbearance that we hope others will also display. Our society is pluralistic, reflecting deep disagreements about how we ought to live. History teaches us that faith doesn’t require hegemony to prosper. But it does require that those who have it live it, loving their neighbors as themselves. There is room both for political and legal action, and for the building and maintenance of personal relationships. If we forgo the former, there may be no room for the latter. If we focus on the former, we run the risk that those parchment barriers will be swept away by the animosity we have done nothing to disarm and dispel.