In most communities in Georgia, public school facilities and programs form a big part of the glue that holds our citizens together. Of course most kids in Georgia spend large portions of their days learning in public schools, but our schools fill numerous other purposes as well. School auditoriums regularly host community meetings, playgrounds provide fitness opportunities for neighborhood kids, and many of us even vote at schools.
There’s a good reason for schools opening their facilities and programs as broadly as possible: almost every Georgian helps pay for them and enabling access helps leverage the value of our hard-earned tax dollars. When we buy gas, shop for clothes and pay property taxes, we all contribute significant funds to public education. And, we all pay these costs regardless of whether or not we have children enrolled in our public school system, which brings me to the purpose of this article.
It is particularly hard for me to understand why education related organizations would even consider adopting discriminatory policies that hinder broad community access to public school facilities and programs. To help explain this issue, I’ll offer three specific examples of issues that citizens have raised with my office and other elected officials.
First, we have the well-publicized case of a high school athlete being disqualified from an event because the Georgia High School Athletic Association (GHSA) felt that it was wrong for him to have a Bible verse written in small letters on a headband. Given there are no safety issues or unfair competition issues associated with this display, it’s hard to see GHSA’s action as being anything other than an attack on the free exercise of faith.
Adding insult to injury, GHSA recently banned dozens of Christian schools from playing competitive sports with their public and larger private school counterparts. To anyone observing from the outside, there’s simply no good reason why two schools who equally want to compete with one another should be barred by a third party from playing sports.
Making matters worse, GHSA issued its denial in a curt letter, giving minimal explanation to these Christian schools, essentially saying “we don’t want to play sports with you.” Bear in mind this “association” is private in name only: much of its funding tied to your tax dollars and public education, giving it control over millions of dollars in public investment in athletic facilities that ought to be available for the benefit of our communities.
There’s simply no acceptable reason why an association made up of public schools should bar its members from participating with Christian schools, churches and families to allow students to voluntarily practice their faith and participate on an even footing in school activities. As we begin this legislative session, the State Senate will have an increased focus on concrete steps we can take to ensure all students have fair access to the facilities and programs we all pay for with hard-earned tax dollars. It is my hope that elected and appointed education policymakers will join with us in supporting policies to improve access and participation for Georgia students and their families.