Learning Matters

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Dahlia Lithwick on Staunton

While catching up on Slate this morning, I see that Dahlia Lithwick posted her take on the Staunton controversy earlier this week. Her Jurisprudence column is one of my favorite features on Slate. I don't have the benefit of a legal background and admire her ability to address legal questions of the day with writing that is sharp, accessible, and sometimes entertaining.

The issue in Staunton centers on the school district's accommodation of off-campus weekday religious education programs. Once a week, elementary students whose parents have signed them up for the program leave school grounds to receive religious instruction at various nearby churches. As Dahlia points out, this is constitutional under current precedent. It's not uncommon in some parts of the United States either. In a community like Staunton, where news reports indicate that most families participate, it's an example of local control in action.

In the end, the Staunton School Board decided to continue the release program. The long term challenge to this practice is probably not from different applications of the Establishment Clause. Instead, academic needs will compete more strongly with voluntary religious education for instructional time as the various state accountability systems ratchet up toward NCLB's 100% proficiency requirement. By all accounts, and I will vouch for this based on childhood experience, instruction is pretty much halted for the non-participating students left behind in school, so instructional time is reduced for all students. I suspect the need for more instructional time to meet state academic requirements will curtail many release programs in the next decade.

For a good summary of the legal issues, check out Dahlia Lithwick's article.

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