Student Well-Being

Bush Eyes After-School Role For Faith Groups

By Mark Walsh — February 07, 2001 6 min read
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Religious groups would be able to seek federal funding for after-school programs under President Bush’s initiative for encouraging the involvement of “faith-based” organizations in addressing the nation’s social problems.

Mr. Bush mentioned one prominent Department of Education program by name last week as he promoted his initiative in a visit to a Christian community center here.

“I want to fully open up the after-school program, called 21st Century Learning Centers, to all after-school programs, including faith-based groups,” Mr. Bush said during his Jan. 30 visit to the Fishing School, a neighborhood Christian-based program run on a shoestring budget by a retired Washington police officer.

“This little haven is a refuge from violence and addiction and abuse,” the president said. “Children can find learning and care, but most important, they find something that we can never pass legislation to achieve— and that’s love.”

After emphasizing education during his first full week in office, Mr. Bush last week used the visit to the Fishing School, in addition to meetings with religious and charity leaders and an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, to talk up his plans for enlisting churches and other religious groups in government-backed social-service efforts.

The president’s proposals did not escape criticism, especially from those concerned that they would erode the constitutional separation of church and state.

“Your faith- based proposals raise ... serious First Amendment establishment-clause and policy concerns, such as the religious-liberty rights of the beneficiaries of government programs” and “excessive entanglement between religion and government,” said a letter to Mr. Bush signed by 19 national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the National Education Association.

The promotion of religiously affiliated providers of social aid was a campaign theme of Mr. Bush’s, and last week, he put forth several concrete ideas in the form of executive orders and proposed legislation. The president:

• Established by executive order a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which will be run by John J. DiIulio Jr., a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who has written widely about juvenile crime and church- affiliated social services.

• Ordered the heads of five Cabinet departments to establish their own centers for faith-based initiatives that will work to eliminate regulatory barriers to the participation of religious organizations in providing social services in federal programs. The departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Labor are included in the order.

• Called for AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s initiative to get young people involved in community service, to direct some of its participants to work in literacy and after-school programs sponsored by religious groups. Mr. Bush said he would appoint Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis, as a board member of the Corporation for National Service, which runs AmeriCorps, to oversee that effort.

Competitive Bidding

Secretary of Education Rod Paige accompanied Mr. Bush during his visit to the Fishing School, and the secretary’s spokeswoman said the department was prepared to help facilitate the initiative.

“The first step for everybody is to identify what opportunities exist and what barriers exist” to the participation of faith-based providers of services, said Lindsey Kozberg, the acting press secretary for Mr. Paige. “Probably, after-school programs and community-partnership efforts are the most likely areas,” she said.

Mr. Bush himself cited the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a popular Education Department program that grew from a mere $1 million in appropriations in fiscal 1997 to $846 million in the current fiscal year. The program provides money for after-school academic and enrichment activities in rural and inner-city public schools.

The president’s plan, reflecting a proposal Mr. Bush offered during his 2000 campaign, calls for the learning- centers program “to open 100 percent of its funding to competitive bidding. In addition to schools, faith-based and neighborhood groups should be able to apply for such funds.” Such a change would require action by Congress.

The document issued by the White House last week, which is short on details in many areas, also calls for allocating federal money to create “community technology centers to help bridge the digital divide in poor neighborhoods.” And it mentions providing low-income parents with “certificates” for defraying the costs of after-school programs, “whether run by a community group, neighborhood church, synagogue or mosque, or a local school.” Mr. Bush’s campaign proposal for such certificates called for $400 million in funding.

Tom Lewis, who founded the Fishing School 11 years ago in a poor Washington neighborhood, said last week that “I would be happy to be the first in line” for such government aid. His program serves about 70 students at a time, mixing inspirational Christian messages with homework tutoring, Spanish lessons, and computer time.

“I don’t consider it robbery to share in that kind of funding,” Mr. Lewis said. “For years, I think we’ve been doing part of the government’s work.”

President Bush and his aides took pains to stress that the proposals, as they see them, would not result in government aid to religion.

“Government, of course, cannot fund, and will not fund, religious activities,” Mr. Bush said. “But when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them.”

Faith and Public Schools

Mr. Goldsmith said in a White House briefing that under the president’s proposals, it was appropriate for the government to pay for shelter or food through faith-based providers, “but not to fund the Bibles, not to fund the crosses, not to fund the stars of David or whatever.”

Such assurances did not placate critics of the initiative, who said they were concerned about whether religious organizations that accepted federal money would have to follow civil rights laws and not discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion. That issue has been contentious in the application of the federal government’s existing “charitable choice” provisions that have allowed religiously affiliated providers to take part in welfare-to-work and other federal programs.

“President Bush is talking about turning churches into an arm of the federal bureaucracy,” argued Joseph Conn, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I think there are a lot of issues they have not thought through yet.”

In one example of the kinds of questions the initiative raises, White House aides were asked last week whether controversial religious organizations such as the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam could seek funding for their drug-treatment programs or other social services. If such programs met the criteria of the federal grant program, they would be eligible, the aides said.

The idea of involving churches and other religious organizations in efforts to improve public schools is not new. Many such efforts have been under way for years, particularly in urban districts.

In 1999, the Education Department and the Philadelphia school district co-sponsored a conference about religious communities and public schools. One of the speakers was Mr. DiIulio, who helped run a project that studied and assisted faith-based efforts to help youths. He is also known for his theories on juvenile crime, including his controversial prediction of the rise of the juvenile “superpredator.”

Dennis L. Shirley, the associate dean of the education school at Boston College, a Roman Catholic institution, said that church-related groups had been involved in helping public schools for at least a decade.

“It’s essentially people from religious congregations who are in schools tutoring or helping out with after-school programs,” Mr. Shirley said.

“I really believe in the power of faith-based organizations to work with schools,” he added. President Bush’s initiative “is one of the most exciting things to come out of Washington in many years,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Eyes After-School Role For Faith Groups

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