Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Children Are Not Creatures of the State: New Hampshire Edition

Politicians across the country like to claim that they’re all in favor of local control of education—until parents and their locally elected officials actually start trying to exercise it.

The small New Hampshire town of Croydon is a case in point.

Like many small towns in New Hampshire, Croydon does not have public schools to serve all grade levels so it contracts with education providers in neighboring towns. At issue now is the Croydon School Board’s decision to allow five elementary students to attend the neighboring Newport Montessori School. As’s Steve Mac Donald explains:

    "State law allows towns to pursue these agreements, sending taxpayer education dollars to any accredited school, public, charter, or private, even in neighboring states, with the exception of religious schools. The local board, at the behest of voters, negotiates contracts and approves taxpayer-funded tuition payments to those schools. The money follows the student."

This plan has been in place for high school students for more than 25 years. Back in 2007 the Croydon school board began investigating ways to expand similar options for elementary school students. When it unveiled its choice plan for this school year, the state board cried foul and has threatened to withhold some $39,000 in state funding.

State Board Chair Virginia Barry, who insists that “the districts’ legal obligations must supersede parental demands,” claims letting public dollars follow students to schools of their parents’ choice violates state law.

No so, counters Dr. Jody Underwood, chair of the Croydon School Board. Underwood explains:

    "There are communities on the borders of Vermont and Maine who send their kids to Vermont and Maine private schools. They are not controlled by the state Board of Education at all."

Former State Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas agrees with the Croydon Board, and insists that Barry’s interpretation of state law is incorrect. As it stands now, the Croydon School District plans to fight the state in court.

Meanwhile there are several commonsense realities the court and parental rights’ defenders within and beyond New Hampshire should keep in mind. As Bill Walker recently argued in the Nashua Telegraph:

    "Why are high state officials spending our tax money to fight diversity in education? It’s not because they don’t believe in diversity for their own children.

    For the members of the political classes and government-employee unions, choice is assumed to be their children’s birthright. President Obama’s children go to private school. Gov. Maggie Hassan’s children went to private school. In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the public-school teachers send their own children to private school, and they are right to do so. ...

    Canada has had publicly funded school choice since the 1800s. In the province of Alberta, less than half the students go to the geographically closest school.

    More than half of U.S. states have some sort of school choice program. ...

    Choice is a long tradition in New Hampshire. The town of Derry sends its children to Pinkerton Academy; Coe- Brown Academy receives public students as well. The Rivendell District that serves Orford magi­cally mingles its tax funds with those from another state.

    New England towns have always put education above arbi­trary political barriers; students have crossed state borders for hundreds of years."

Walker is right. Using public funds for personal education choices is not an earth-shattering idea.

Vermont and Maine have had town tuitioning voucher programs since 1869 and 1873, respectively, and more than 9,000 students are currently using publicly-funded vouchers to attend schools of their parents’ choice in those states.

In fact, public schools across the country are spending more than $1.4 billion on private school programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nationwide, parents of nearly 130,000 students ages 6 through 21 with disabilities are also using federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds to send their children to the private schools they think are best for their children, including religious, parochial schools. (My tally is based on 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Education Child Count and Educational Environments, 2013.)

And let’s not forget, currently, nearly 9 million college students nationwide are using more than $32 billion in Federal Pell Grants to attend the colleges and universities of their choice, public and private, nonsectarian and religious alike.

Right now more than 24,000 New Hampshire undergraduate students are using more than $81 million in Federal Pell Grants to attend postsecondary institutions, including more than 11,000 students who are using nearly $38 million in public funds to attend the private and proprietary postsecondary institutions of their choice. (See U.S. Department of Education, Table 22.)

Finally, New Hampshire enacted one of the country’s most unique tax-credit scholarship programs in 2012. It allows businesses to take credits against their state taxes for contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations so parents can send their children to the private or home school programs of their choice.

Children are not creatures of the state, and public school officials in Croydon should be commended for their efforts to put the best interests of children ahead of petty, parochial politics.


In some countries, college-educated more likely to keep the faith

Social scientists have long accepted that religious faith tends to dwindle among college students. However, a new study shows that the highly educated's loss of faith varies among nations.

Comparatively religious nations, such as the U.S., Turkey, Mexico, Italy and Israel, tend to see the strongest reduction in religiosity among the college-educated, according to research by sociologist Philip Schwadel of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

And, in more than one-fifth of the nations he studied, including New Zealand, Sweden, Russia and South Korea, higher education actually has a positive effect on religiosity. That could be because the highly educated tend to be more heavily involved in organizations and thus more likely to join and attend church.

"The results illustrate considerable cross-national differences in both the impact of higher education and the social significance of religiosity," Schwadel said. "In some nations, the highly educated are less religious than other citizens, in other nations they are more religious."

To examine the impact of higher education across nations, Schwadel used data from more than 46,000 people from 39 nations collected in the 2008 International Social Survey Programme, which asked a series of questions related to religious beliefs and activities.

Schwadel found that a university degree has a positive effect on religiosity in nine nations, a negative effect in 18 nations and no significant effect in 12 nations.

The study involved predominantly Christian nations and sheds little light on whether higher education has a different impact on non-Christian nations. Data was collected from 23 countries in Europe, seven from Asia or the Middle East, and three from South America. The U.S., Mexico and the Dominican Republic were included, as were South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Less than 4 percent of the respondents were Muslim, 2 percent identified as Buddhists and less than 2 percent identified with other East Asian religions. About 70 percent of the Muslims participating in the survey were from Turkey.

"Although the non-Christian nations in the sample did not unduly influence the results, this may change with a more diverse sample, particularly since there are generally higher levels of religious practice and belief in majority Muslim nations," Schwadel noted.

Schwadel developed a scale to measure religiosity among individuals in each nation based upon survey responses about frequency of prayer; strength of belief in God; self-identification as being religious; and frequency of attending religious services. On average, people in the Philippines were the most religious, while people in the Czech Republic were the least religious.

Other factors considered included percentage with university degrees, race, gender, age and gross domestic product. The study also accounted for whether participants lived in urban areas, whether they lived in a communist or former communist country, and how much religion is regulated in their nation.

Although respondents with university degrees reported relatively low levels of religious participation, Schwadel said the secularizing effect of higher education should not be exaggerated. Sex, age and marital status appear to be stronger factors in whether people are religious, he noted.

Schwadel found no association between a nation's average level of higher education with levels of religious belief among its people. However, rising per capita gross domestic product strongly correlates with declines in a nation's religiosity, suggesting that a different measure of modernity may be at play.

While those who live in a communist or former communist nation are less likely to be religious, Schwadel found that variation in the effect of higher education on religiosity is not related to whether a nation is communist or formerly communist. He studied nine such nations: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Ukraine.

The negative effect of higher education on religiosity seen in relatively religious nations could be the result of less educated segments of the population emulating the beliefs adopted by the highly educated, Schwadel said.

"Secularity may be a form of status differentiation for the highly educated in relatively religious nations, but it cannot serve that function in relatively irreligious nations," he said.

Schwadel called for more long-term study of how social networks and cultural capital influence the relationship between higher education and religious belief.

Schwadel's study was published in the most recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


Illinois School District Is Standing Up to the Federal Government’s Bullying Over Transgender Students and Locker Rooms

Township High School District 211, like many school districts, is wrestling with how to balance the interests of transgender students with the privacy rights of other students. Here’s what the district does to accommodate transgender students, according to a newsletter the school emailed Oct. 12:

"Transgender students can “use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity, as there are private stalls available.”

Transgender students “can participate on sex-identified sports teams.” In other words, if you were born as male and have a male physique, you can play on the girls team if you identify as female.

“[T]ransgender students have access to a support team with extensive training in addressing the identity development needs of adolescents. This support team, in partnership with the student and parents, works through the options available for sex-specific facilities, as well as name and gender references on school rosters.”

However, that’s not good enough for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), according to the school district’s newsletter, penned by Superintendent Daniel Cates:

The OCR has taken the position that the district’s decision to not allow unrestricted access to the locker room is inadequate and discriminatory. The OCR has directed that transgender students should have full access to sex-specific locker rooms for changing during physical education classes and after-school activities. Likely litigation and enforcement action, including the potential loss of federal education funds, may be imposed by the OCR.(emphasis mine)

Read that again: a school district is facing the loss of federal funds because they won’t allow a student born the opposite-sex access to a same-sex locker room and now that student has filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

When I contacted the Office of Civil Rights to confirm the school was representing what the OCR was threatening to do accurately, a spokesman told me “we don’t discuss the details of our investigations,” but didn’t deny the school district’s assessment of the situation.

This is insane.

This is not a situation where a school is turning the other way as a transgender student faces bullying or assault. In fact, the school has instead instituted several policies that should satisfy the interests of transgender students without grossly disrupting the learning environment. What’s left is a very narrow situation relating a time when people are changing in an open room.

In fact, according to a Chicago Tribune editorial published Oct. 19, the school has even floated the idea of a compromise that would allow transgender students access to the locker rooms:

District 211 is willing to provide private dressing stations within its locker rooms—not just one, but six to 10, Cates says. They could be used by any student who is uncomfortable changing clothes in front of anyone else for any reason.

You’d think that would be good enough.  You’d think wrong. The editorial continues:

Problem solved, right? No.

The sticking point is that while they’d be available to all students, they’d be mandatory for one. The district would require the transgender girl to use the stalls. That’s not acceptable to the Office of Civil Rights, which insists on the same rules and accommodations for all students.

The school district met with federal officials Wednesday, but it’s not looking like they’ll change. “We continue to work with OCR in a conscientious attempt to reach a resolution regarding this individual case,” said Tom Peterson, the district’s communications director, in a statement, according to the Daily Herald.

Is the federal government really on solid legal ground? A letter sent to District 211 from conservative legal groups Alliance Defending Freedom and Thomas More Society disputes that:

Allowing students to use opposite-sex restrooms and locker rooms would seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ free exercise rights, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning. These dangers are so clear-cut that a school district allowing such activity would clearly expose itself to tort liability. Consequently, school districts should reject policies that force students to share restrooms and locker rooms with members of the opposite sex.

Didn’t it also used to be the case that if a school district allowed a person with male anatomy to undress in front of a bunch of girls it would be considered unlawful sexual harassment?

But legalities aside … what about common sense? Where is the role for the local authorities, for the school district superintendent, to exercise their own judgment, in light of what they know about the community and the schools, and decide the best way to balance transgender students’ requests with other students’ rights and expectations?

And what about non-transgender students? Sure, I think it’s likely that some of them would have no problem with sharing a locker room with a transgender student. But what about some of the others? What about the adolescents, already embarrassed about their changing bodies, who do feel uncomfortable changing in an open room with someone whose anatomy may not match the gender he or she now identifies with?

Do we really want the federal government to insist that those adolescents’ preferences need to be ignored, overridden?

The national conversation tends to revolve around the wants and preferences of transgender students. But it’s not transgender students, but those who support locker rooms being restricted to those born a particular sex at birth, who are facing the federal government’s bullying right now.


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