ACLU Investigating Ohio Governor’s Student Mentoring Program

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Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich has unveiled a new program called “Community Connectors,” a $10 million student mentoring program to help improve achievement. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, however, is questioning the constitutionality of the governor’s plan.

Christine Link, Ohio’s ACLU executive director, is concerned that requiring a “house of worship” or “faith-based” organization join with a business and a school before the school can receive grants from the program may be compromising civil liberties, reports Patrick O’Donnell of The Plain Dealer. Other non-profits may participate if a business and a religious group agree to partner with the organization.

ACLU officials have written a letter to the governor and State Superintendent Richard Ross explaining that they were troubled that religious criteria had been injected into the program, which they believed could be unconstitutional. Link explained that the government and schools can have religious entities working with students, but with strong limits. The government and schools cannot, however, give religious groups preference, or include those groups to the exclusion of other groups.

The legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, Freda Levenson, said in a press release this week:

 “Conditioning a public school’s receipt of government funds on collaboration with a religious organization raises serious constitutional concerns. Although improving educational outcomes within our communities is an important goal, it cannot be achieved by unconstitutional means.”

The ACLU lawyers want to research the rules and the discussions with the governor, his staff, Ross, and the Ohio Department of Education before they go further.

Community Connectors is one of Kasich’s key education initiatives, with the aim of providing students with adult role models from their communities, says the Associated Press‘ Julie Carr Smyth.

“There is little doubt that an adult’s presence in a child’s education brings greater success in the classroom,” Ross said as the application window opened Dec. 1.

Ross developed the grant application along with the governor’s office and a panel of advisers, but the section that caused concern was,  “a faith-based organization or house of worship must be included as a partner.” John Charlton, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Education, shared that grant money could not be used to pay salaries or compensation. Neither could funds be used for “religious worship, instruction or proselytization.”

Radio station WKSU’s Karen Kasler reports that Link said:

“If he had come out with an edict that said only secular organizations, we would be there to defend the right of faith-based groups to be included. He’s practicing a kind of politics of exclusion – keeping certain groups out.”

An Ohio Department of Education spokesperson said that the governor and the superintendent felt that adding the faith-based organization component made the mentoring link “more robust” and would give students the advantage of connecting to successful people with “high moral values.”

Catherine Candisky, writing for The Columbus Dispatch, quotes Link.

“Not only does this clearly interfere with the religious freedom of Ohio families, it places an unconstitutional burden on our public schools and erects another roadblock for at-risk students to access educational opportunities.” 

Link added that a full inquiry of the matter would take place. Currently the State Department of Education is accepting applications for the grants from state schools. The grants are set to be awarded during the up-coming school year.