Education Department to schools: Banning prayer will cost you
"Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote in a letter to public elementary and secondary schools Friday. "At the same time, school officials may not "compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities." Nor may teachers, school administrators, and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students."

The letter accompanied a list of guidelines on such issues as prayer during noninstructional time, organized prayer groups and activities, moments of silence, and religious expression in class assignments. There's more detail and slightly different wording than in the 1999 guidelines endorsed by organizations across the religious and ideological spectrum, but the principles are the same.

The big difference between the Clinton administration guidelines and those of the Bush administration is that schools that don't comply with the guidelines risk losing federal funds. In fact, schools must certify in writing that they have "no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in this guidance."

This change—and indeed, Paige's letter itself—was mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, but Americans United for Separation of Church and State wants people to believe that the only person behind it is President Bush. "The Bush administration is clearly trying to push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools," executive director Barry Lynn tells the Associated Press. "Administration lawyers have selectively read case law to come to the conclusions they wanted, and school administrators should be aware of that." (In other words: violate the guidelines or we'll sue.)

But Liberty Counsel president Mathew Staver says he is "very excited about the clarity, and very optimistic that these guidelines will go a long way in solving issues related to students' religious speech. … We will use these actively in dealing with schools, and we'll use them in cases we're litigating as well."

Bush will push vouchers across the country
As Weblog noted last week, President Bush's budget proposal includes money for a pilot program that would allow some families in Washington, D.C., to send their children to private and religious schools. The move was strongly opposed by D.C. officials, including Democrat Mayor Anthony Williams, but a U.S. Department of Education spokesman says the administration will move ahead anyway.

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But the big news is that it's not just for D.C. Seven or eight cities around the country will receive money for similar programs, department spokesman Dan Langan told The Washington Post.

"Nowhere could there be a starker contrast between what's good for children and what's in the best interests of teacher unions than in the District," Linda Chavez writes in a Washington Times op-ed. "If children in the District and other failing schools systems around the country are to have any chance of succeeding, they have to be allowed to abandon schools that don't teach, and that means giving school vouchers to poor parents so they can choose better schools for their children."

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