An Ohio program designed to reduce the number of school drop-outs through mentoring is funneling most of the money to religious groups, a newspaper has reported.
The program, called Community Connectors, encourages religious and community groups to partner with public schools to provide services to at-risk students. When Gov. John Kasich announced the plan late in 2014, he stipulated that schools must have “faith-based” partners to qualify for the funding.
Americans United and other organizations raised concerns, pointing out that Ohio officials cannot compel public schools to join forces with houses of worship. In response, officials at the Ohio Department of Education announced that secular groups that promote “values” would meet the definition of “faith-based.”
“While faith or religion may be the basis for this belief, a group does not have to be affiliated with an organized religion or faith tradition to be considered a faith-based partner; secular, non-religious, values-based organizations also qualify,” read a statement from the department.
Now that the program is up and running, it appears that most of the money is going to religious organizations. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in November that 118 groups have received public money under the program, and only 16 are non-religious.
Ian Smith, an attorney with Americans United, said he was not surprised.
“Sadly, it’s somewhat predictable,” Smith said. “It seems obvious that the point of this was always to get this kind of response.”
The program has doled out $10 million so far. An additional $20 million will be distributed over the next two years.
Americans United also expressed concern that public school students would be subjected to unwanted proselytizing. Many of the mentoring programs are run by volunteers, who may not understand that they are not supposed to interject religion into the program.
Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell interviewed officials at the Bedford School District about this issue. Beth Russell, a spokeswoman for the district, said the mentoring program is up and running, and there have been no problems.
“Whereas there are religious entities in our partnership, they’re not religious programs,” Russell said. “It was clear to everybody in the beginning that you’re here to do character mentoring, but not talk about religion or push your religion.”