Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently announced that religious organizations may apply for federal money to open charter schools through the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Program (CSP). She said, “the Department of Education will no longer discriminate and will allow for and welcome religiously affiliated applicants for the CSP.”

She made the announcement to applause on October 26, 2020, at a forum in Louisville, Kentucky. The forum was organized by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions (BIPPS) and the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition (K-PAC) to discuss education reform, including school choice, in response to the low achievement rates in Jefferson County Public Schools and the increasing achievement gaps between black and white students within the largest school district in Kentucky.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act defines “charter school” as a “public school” that is “exempt from significant State or local rules that inhibit the flexible operation and management of public schools,” but that is nonetheless “operated under public supervision and direction.” 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(A) and (B). The ESEA also states no charter school may be “affiliated” with any “sectarian school or religious institution.” 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E).

In the wake of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), the Secretary requested the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to examine 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E) for its constitutionality. In Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court held that “the Free Exercise Clause protects against indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” OLC opined that 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2)(E)’s prohibition against charter schools affiliating with a “sectarian school or religious institution” is unconstitutional pursuant to Trinity Lutheran, explaining that “forbidding charter schools under the program from affiliating with religious organizations discriminates on the basis of religious status.” During the October Kentucky event, the Secretary also cited the recent Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, where Chief Justice Roberts stated in the majority opinion that “we have repeatedly held that the Establishment Clause is not offended when religious observers and organizations benefit from neutral government programs.”

It is one thing for the CSP to require the curriculum of a charter school to be nonsectarian. It is something else entirely to discriminate against an institution that wants to establish a charter school using CSP funds simply because of its religious status. The Federal Constitution does not permit such a violation of religious freedom, and charter schools may affiliate with churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions that wish to set up and operate charter schools under the CSP. As the Secretary highlighted in her remarks, “according to a recent RealClear survey, three out of four families with children in public schools want their education dollars to follow their children to wherever they go to learn.” For America’s students and their families, removing unconstitutional barriers is a step in the right direction.

By: Jacqueline Gonzalez, Director of Outreach


Administration warns of China’s Influence in American schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Department of State Secretary Mike Pompeo sent joint letters to both the chief state school officers and the presidents of American institutions of higher education (and their affiliates) on October 9, 2020 warning of the dangers to academic freedom posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to K-12 schools and institutions of higher education (IHE’s).

The PRC abuses human rights on a massive scale. As Secretary DeVos said in her statement marking the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for the mass abortion of millions of baby girls since 1995 and have mandated forced abortion, sterilization, and birth control on the Muslim Uyghur populations. In addition, it has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong and oppressed ethnic minorities throughout China.

In the United States, the PRC is supporting hundreds of K-12 “Confucius Classrooms” for propaganda activities. While the program is billed as a way to learn Chinese language and culture, its teachers are often “vetted” and “paid” by the Communist Party itself. Unsurprisingly, students have reported that teachers ignore subjects that might paint the PRC in a negative light. Furthermore, the PRC has hosted U.S. school administrators in Beijing, and there is evidence that teachers must agree to follow Chinese law while teaching in Confucius Classrooms in the U.S.

The situation in higher education is also very serious. The Chinese Communist Party is deeply entangled with U.S. based colleges and universities. Chinese students report being subjected to surveillance and intimidation. IHEs have failed to report foreign money under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, leaving the Department and the public in the dark about more than $6.5 billion in funds from China and other sources. The Department of Education held an event on October 20, 2020, where a new report was unveiled detailing this massive failure, and featuring a speech (minute 10:00) by a student who suffered Communist imprisonment and “reeducation” while her school, the University of Washington, stayed silent.

As the Secretaries said, “While Americans may differ on many issues, threats to our freedoms unite us all. We look forward to working together to uphold our values and advance the goal of education excellence for the next generation of Americans.”

By Nick Bell, Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives

It Feels So Good to Be in School

My high school biology classroom looks quite different from last year on this warm September day. My students are seated six feet apart, we are wearing masks, the windows are open, and everyone has their own set of supplies. Even though I am an experienced teacher, I feel a little awkward as we begin our day. My students’ facial expressions are a mystery. I have to ask a student to repeat his question because his voice is a little muffled. I see a look of uncertainty as a student realizes that she has forgotten her supplies. I assure her that she can borrow some from me. We will sanitize them before and after she uses them. It is a challenging situation for students, parents, and educators as we return to school safely. We will keep getting better at this. When I ask students to share one fun thing they did over the weekend, the room erupts with stories of visiting the beach, seeing family, pet projects, and special moments. I see my students smiling under their masks. It feels so good to be in school.

As I introduce today’s class challenge — to build a prototype of a seed that can be dispersed by the wind — I deliver the materials to each student and students open the Google Slides from their laptops so that they can record and share their data. Although students are socially distanced, I am able to assign them to groups, albeit a little farther away than usual. I ask students to brainstorm and then design their own prototype to ensure that all students are engaged. As they build their prototypes, test them, and make improvements, I disinfect supplies and answer questions. I notice that students are completely absorbed in improving the ability of their seed to stay aloft. The room is alive with energy and purpose. It feels so good to be in school.

Students and teachers alike thrive in an environment of interaction, whether it is discussing an issue, solving a problem together, or working on a project collaboratively. To accommodate social distancing as well as my students working remotely, I have replaced my lectures with shorter screencasts that all of my students can view either at school or at home. I have swapped out my white board with an online bulletin board (Padlet) where students share their ideas or lab data. My students at home can connect with my in-school students during class time while performing a lab using Zoom or Google Meet. Yes, school is very different this year and can be little awkward or uncomfortable at times. Some students need to work independently from home, some are hybrid, and some are in the school building every day. As unique as our individual experiences may be, we are united in the common goal of education. We will keep getting better at this. It feels so good to be in school.

Lori Christerson, Ph. D.

Science Teacher

Bishop Brady High School

Concord, NH

Cross-posted from the Homeroom Blog.

The Department is helping Americans understand the importance of foreign money to American colleges and universities

The pursuit of scientific and technological innovation by American higher education has created economic growth, an improved quality of life, and enhanced security.  Unfortunately, in recent years, certain foreign actors have taken steps to influence American colleges and universities in ways that do not benefit the United States by making to schools large and substantial gifts and contributions.

To prevent undue influence from hostile foreign actors, Congress has directed American colleges and universities to comply with Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which requires institutions to report to the Department of Education any gifts and contracts from foreign sources exceeding $250,000 in a calendar year.  Unfortunately, recent investigations by the Department demonstrate that many institutions have failed to comply with this easily understandable statutory requirement, and the Department is taking measures to require schools to comply in the face of possible enforcement action by the Attorney General of the United States.

Preliminary investigations by the Department have discovered that at least six prominent universities have failed to report in excess of $1.3 billion from foreign sources, including from China, Qatar, and Russia.  Those same investigations have revealed other disturbing connections between China and American universities.  One university received research funding from a Chinese multinational conglomerate to develop new algorithms for crowd surveillance.  Another school had multiple contracts with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China.  Five of the six investigated universities had multiple contracts with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company with a history of hostility to the U.S.

The Department has other cases pending, including an investigation into the University of Texas for its failure to report qualifying contracts, faculty exchanges, and other valuable transfers of technology with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the maximum biocontainment laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Since July of 2019, universities have revealed more than $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign source gifts and contracts.  Institutions have anonymized the identities of the donors of at least $1.14 billion in funds from China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia.

To combat underreporting and to ease reporting burdens for schools, Secretary DeVos has directed the Department to create a modern and robust information collections system to capture contributions to schools by foreign sources, and the Department recently announced a new reporting portal for universities.  Institutions must file any Section 117 reports using this portal on or before July 31, 2020.

American’s universities have a legal and moral duty to provide transparency regarding foreign sources of influence.  The Department’s Section 117 investigations have shown the importance of foreign money to American institutions of higher education so that Americans may understand these transactions and decide whether this activity is in the best interest of the United States.

By Nick Bell, Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives

Multiple Pathways to Success: Supporting Foster and Homeless Students

On Thursday, June 28th, the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives (CFOI) and Federal Student Aid (FSA) co-hosted a webinar for faith and community leaders, as well as other caring adults, to provide information on assisting foster and homeless students with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Faith and community leaders are in direct contact with many foster and homeless students, and this webinar was the first in a series to provide them with resources to help their communities. Fred Stennis, the Outreach Team Coordinator at FSA, and Dr. Andrea Ramirez, the Acting Director of CFOI, discussed the process for students applying for federal student aid, how faith and community leaders can help guide students through this process and dispelled some of the myths about the FAFSA and FSA.

The purpose of this webinar was to help foster and homeless students who wish to pursue higher education. Dr. Ramirez introduced the topic with information regarding the nation’s foster and homeless student population. She then shared the U.S. Department of Education’s goal of providing students with multiple pathways to success; higher education is one such pathway. Fred Stennis then gave attendees information on resources that FSA provides to students, including directions for filling out FAFSA.

FSA gives out $120 billion to more than 13 million students every year, through grants, loans, and work-study programs. Foster and homeless youth face unique challenges when pursuing higher education, but this webinar explained how they are treated equally when filling out the FAFSA. Caring adults who wish to help foster and homeless students should encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

Some key takeaways from this webinar were:

  • All U.S. citizens are eligible to apply for Federal Student Aid, including foster and homeless students.
  • FAFSA opens on October 1st.Check for deadlines from FSA, state agencies, colleges, and other financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
  • Complete the FAFSA with information as of the date of submission. (Applicants do not need to update the application after submission, but can re-submit the form if necessary.)
  • Applicants do not need to provide a home address to fill out the FAFSA. Applicants will be required to provide an address where they can reliably receive mail. This can be the address of any caring adult in their life.
  • Applicants should include up to 10 schools on the FAFSA to compare their aid options from schools they’re considering.

For more information on this webinar, for a copy of the presentation.

For more information on FAFSA and other FSA resources, FSA holds monthly webinars, has tutorial videos on their YouTube channel and will answer questions via email or web chat on their website,, or by phone at 1-800-4FED-AID.

CFOI will be hosting another webinar on August 23rd, 2018, from 1-2:00pm (ET), with guest speakers from FSA and the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), to provide faith and community leaders with resources to aid citizens returning from the prison system as they navigate FAFSA and career, technical and apprenticeship opportunities. Registration will be available soon. To be notified when registration is available, and to learn more about our work at the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, email and request to receive our center’s highlights.