In many ways, I consider the state of Ohio to be my second home. Though its flat expanses of corn and soybean fields make it far from the most glamourous state, and its capricious electorates only bring it national attention during presidential elections, it isn’t without its charms. Half of my family lives there, I spent four years there while I was in college, and I’ll always have a place in my heart for the Buckeye State. So I was disappointed to learn that Governor Kasich recently introduced a divisive grant program that will disadvantage Ohio’s schools.
The program, called Community Connectors, is meant to use state grant funds to create mentorship initiatives in public schools and charter schools with large numbers of students living in poverty. Originally, when the program was proposed, it required schools to partner with local businesses or nonprofit organizations in order to receive funding for the mentorship projects. The goal of the program was to give students successful role models from their communities who could guide and motivate them to finish their education, thus combatting high drop-out rates. With this objective in mind, Community Connectors seemed like a sound program that would bring together different elements of Ohio’s neighborhoods to support the education and success of the state’s children.
However, only a week ago, Governor Kasich and the Ohio Department of Education altered the terms of the grant to require schools to partner with faith-based organizations in order to receive funding for the mentorship programs. Obviously, this requirement raises concerns about the separation of church and state. If schools must partner with religious groups as part of the program, then the state is failing to remain secular. John Charlton, a spokesperson for the state’s department of education, has been dismissive of these concerns. He claims that because no proselytization or other religious activities will take place as part of the program, the Establishment Clause is still being upheld.
Yet I’m still skeptical. Ohio is a diverse state whose residents include many religious beliefs and traditions, as well as a considerable population of nonreligious individuals. The American Humanist Association has five chapter and affiliate organizations in the state, and the Freedom from Religious Foundation launched a billboard campaign in the Cleveland area this past spring. How, exactly, will the state ensure that all of the students who participate in the mentoring programs, including humanist, atheist, agnostic and other nontheistic students, are respected? I’m not the only person who’s asking these questions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has sent a letter to state officials as a warning of the constitutional violations of the faith-based requirement in this program. Hopefully that will be enough to convince the governor to change his mind, but if not, the issue may go to court, costing Ohio taxpayers money that could be better spent on sound, secular education initiatives.
By adding a religious requirement to the Community Connectors program, the governor is dividing Ohio communities. Students in Ohio will only succeed when they are all respected and treated equally by the state’s school systems. By requiring public schools to partner with religious organizations in order to receive grant funds, the state is favoring religion over non-religion and putting nontheistic students at a disadvantage. Instead of injecting religion into its public schools, Ohio needs comprehensive education initiatives that include and benefit all of its students.