An ACSI Perspective on Maryland State Grant Funding

Submitted by claire_dant on Fri, 04/08/2016 - 12:51

ACSI Guidance on Maryland’s New Textbook and Voucher Legislation for the 2016–17 School Year
April 2016

Changing cultural issues are creating challenging times for our Christian schools around the country. ACSI believes that Christian schools should confront the culture in a scriptural manner while being as wise as serpents and yet as harmless as doves. We know that God is not surprised by all these cultural shifts, realizing that it is our duty as Christian schools to be light in this dark world. However, the question is just how do we do it and yet protect the mission of our schools?

As you may know, on March 29 the Maryland legislature passed SB 190 (the state budget), and the governor is expected to sign it. The annual budget runs July to June. This bill authorizes the budget for July 1, 2016–June 30, 2017. The bill reauthorized the Maryland Nonpublic Student Textbook Program and the Nonpublic Aging Schools Program (Textbook Program) along with the creation of a state-run scholarship program for students to attend private schools.

You received some guidance from ACSI regarding the changes in language on the Textbook Program for this current school year. However, this new bill adds similar but differing language to the new budget law for the 2016-17 school year.

This new budget also included the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (Boost) Program. The Boost program allows the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to spend up to $5 million in the upcoming fiscal year to provide scholarships to students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program to attend an eligible private school. Scholarships are the lesser of the statewide average per pupil expenditure by local education agencies as determined by MSDE or the tuition of the private school. Eligible schools must (1) participate in the Textbook Program, (2) provide more than only prekindergarten and kindergarten, and (3) administer assessments to all students in accordance with federal and state laws; and (4) compliance with the nondiscrimination standards for both programs.

For both the textbook program and the Boost Program the school must also comply with the following:
A nonpublic school participating in the program may not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation. Nothing herein shall require any school or institution to adopt any rule, regulation, or policy that conflicts with its religious or moral teachings. However, all participating schools must agree that they will not discriminate in student admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sexual orientation. So what should the Christian School do moving forward?

ACSI as an association of Christian schools has members that will have a wide opinion on many of these kinds of issues. It is our purpose here to provide some guidance and options that member schools may have. Our purpose is not to dictate a particular direction, but to provide an understanding of the options.

Understand that funding for both of these programs is for just one fiscal year. So how dependent should Christian schools be on these funds? It has always been ACSI’s position that member schools should never get so dependent on government funds that if the school had to stop accepting them, it would devastate the school financially. Already, as seen above, the Textbook Program has changed for this current school year and the requirements will change again next year. The Boost program most likely will have changes in the future. So you need to look at the financial side of this. Schools should never jump into a program just because of the financial impact.

This also requires for schools and parents to become a voice in the Maryland legislature. Either by advocating for change in the programs for the following year or electing those who will understand the issues of the Christian School. We must be proactive in our state and federal government to protect religious freedom!

The first step should be a discussion with the school board. If the school is a church-sponsored school, include the pastor in this discussion. As a Christian school, you must decide the school’s position on dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity relative to student admissions. Do not copy what other schools are doing. Rather, look at the Christian school’s mission and biblical philosophy and determine the policy regarding admission. There likely will be a financial impact no matter what direction the school chooses. The school board must weigh opportunities and risks.

If the school decides that the admissions policy will exclude sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination statement, then the choice is to not participate in the Textbook Program or the Boost program. That choice is fine, and you can move forward.

If the school decides that the admission policy will include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination statement, then the choice is to participate in the Textbook Program and the Boost Program. However, there are some other issues you must now think about and consider.

The first issue is if your admissions policy includes sexual orientation, what will be included in the school’s code of conduct for those students. What behaviors will you expect of them? Will these be consistent with all students and relationships? The legal risk here is that if you were to expel a student for sexual conduct, the student’s family may sue, asserting that the school is discriminating in their admission. The school will need to clearly articulate its conduct policies and be sure that not only parents, but students both understand them. The school must be able to show that it has been consistent in its dealings with all students. The second legal risk is that the state could conclude based on the conduct and discipline, that the school no longer is eligible for the programs. If that is the case, the state can dismiss the school from both programs and ask the school to refund all the revenues from the Boost program.

An interview with families is essential. When it comes to admissions, honesty is still the best policy. First of all, clearly explain the school’s admissions policy and related handbook policies. Each family should be interviewed. Include sharing with the family school’s biblical beliefs on the definition of marriage and the biblical roles of men and women. In the interview share with the family that this is what is going to be taught in the school. Clearly state that this is a Christian school and that it teaches from a biblical perspective on all issues. Then explain that it is important for the school to be in partnership with the parents in the training of their child, and that the school does not want to be in conflict with their home. If the child believes something different from what the bible teaches on gender, then it may be uncomfortable for the child here at the school. Or if they are parents who believe and teach differently at home, the school’s teaching could cause conflict. Again, based on your admissions policy, the school is willing to admit them, but you have been up-front about who you are as a Christian school. At this same time, I would then cover the behavioral code of conduct and be sure to be clear that if the students act out on their beliefs, there are the consequences. I would have all parents and students sign the code of conduct as a separate piece of the admission process. In this case, just including it in the handbook sign off would not be a strong enough measure.

The next issue relates to current parents. If this admissions policy is new to the school, work on the public relations side with current families. There must be some education that takes place.

The last issue involves the school’s staff and teachers. The school must also train its teachers on dealing with these cultural changes, including the willingness to discuss sexual orientation with students. With the cultural change, more students will be questioning their sexuality, and if they cannot talk to their Christian school teachers in a nonthreatening way, who else can they turn to? The Christian school has been too long silent in these areas. Students are going to be hearing it from the media and friends, and that is not where they should hear and discuss these issues.

In conclusion as you begin to think about these cultural changes, it may be tempting to think that this LGBT movement will pass in time. However, we need to learn the lessons of Canada and other countries: it is not going away. Canada is about ten years down the road ahead of us. Their Christian schools are dealing with much greater issues that require them to accept all students based on gender identity. So could it be just a matter of time until it is not optional for additional income but required to operate. Will we have spent enough time now figuring out how to deal with these changes so we are prepared to continue to operate with our biblical mission and mandate?

We cannot help but stop and think, How would Jesus have handled this? We all know it would have been with compassion, love, and understanding. Sin has tainted our world, and things may only get worse. So we as Christian schools must figure out ways to make our light shine brighter than the darkness that is occurring in our country so that they may see our good works and glorify the Father in heaven.

In all of this, we must do this without compromising our biblical beliefs or the truth of the gospel on marriage and sexuality. ACSI has strengthened its statement of faith in these areas and we would be glad to share those changes with you.

Could there be legal challenges with this and other programs? The answer is yes. That is why your school’s leadership must begin to consider the mission and biblical philosophy and make the call on how God wants the school to operate as a Christian school. ACSI will be there to assist in any way we can. That is our purpose!

Disclaimer: The information contained in this document is general in nature and is not intended to provide, or be a substitute for, legal analysis, legal advice, or consultation with appropriate legal counsel. You should not act or rely on information contained in this document without seeking appropriate professional advice.