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The Prayer Provision of NCLB

BOSTON -- Two-thirds of Massachusetts public school districts, risking the loss of federal funding, missed a deadline to prove they are not denying students the right to pray in school.

Districts were required by March 15 to certify to the state that they have no policies preventing constitutionally protected prayer.

Just one-third complied, state education officials said yesterday.

"They need to take it seriously," state Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi Perlman said. "They need to respond to it."
The state is now giving districts more time, but soon will report violators to the U.S. Department of Education. States must notify federal education officials by April 15 of which districts failed to comply. Violators risk losing federal funds.

The prayer provision is part of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which pumps billions of dollars into the nation's schools. Massachusetts received $359 million this year under the law, officials said. Every district receives some portion.

Hudson Superintendent Sheldon Berman said he was unaware of the deadline, but will now comply. Hudson received $120,000 this year in federal support.

"As long as it's in line with the First Amendment, I have no problem with that," Berman said. "We'll send it in."

Berman, citing the prayer provision and Bush's promotion of faith-based initiatives, said he is concerned about the administration's motives.

"I'm a strong believer in the separation of church and state. The current administration is really trying to move that line over in a somewhat destructive way for a democracy that should not be religion-based," he said.
A spokeswoman for the federal Education Department, Susan Aspey, disagreed.

"These guidelines were required by a bipartisan piece of legislation," she said of the law, passed in 2001 with strong support from U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "It is not something that they can ignore."

State Education Commissioner David Driscoll last month informed districts of the federal regulations. He posted a similar reminder Thursday on the DOE Web page and provided a sample certification letter -- consisting of just one sentence -- and e-mail address to submit it.

"We're giving them this extra chance to pull this together," Perlman said. "Superintendents have a lot on their plates."

The Constitution already protects free expression, but U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said in regulations released last month that the goal is "to clarify the extent to which prayer in public schools is legally protected."

"Among other things," he wrote, "students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other non-instructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities."

Boston superintendent Thomas Payzant submitted his certification letter March 5 and distributed guidelines to his headmasters and principals.

Permissible activities, Payzant wrote, include, among other things, "the use of the Bible and other religious texts in conjunction with the study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religions, literature and the like."

Westfield High officials last week were barred from suspending students for handing out candy canes and religious messages. U.S. District Court Judge Frank Freedman found that a school rule prohibiting distribution of printed material on school grounds without permission violated the students' First Amendment rights.
The judge said the Bible study group's activity caused no disruption and no evidence was presented that students attempted to force either the candy canes or the religious message on other students.

The prayer issue is among many No Child Left Behind provisions which require extra district work. By next month, schools also must prepare "report cards" disclosing to parents student performance and their percentages of "highly qualified" teachers.
No districts have objected to the prayer provision, Perlman said.

"We anticipate that districts will respond quickly and get this done," she said, adding that DOE yesterday was unable to produce a list of who has complied.

Massachusetts received a total of $902 million in federal education funds, including the $359 million under No Child Left Behind, state DOE deputy commissioner Mark McQuillan said. Pell grants, adult education and special needs grants comprise the difference.

— Ken Maguire
Many school districts miss deadline on school prayer
MetroWest Daily News
March 22, 2003


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