International Religious Freedom Bill Heads to Obama’s Desk
A long-awaited international religious freedom (IRF) bill is headed to
President Barack Obama’s desk after the U.S. House gave final approval
on Dec. 13.
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act includes a variety of reforms and updates to the landmark 1998 law that created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The new bill is named after the law’s original author, former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who introduced the update legislation before retiring at the end of 2014.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who introduced the bipartisan bill with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., applauded its final passage.
“From China and Vietnam to Syria and Nigeria, we are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence, and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious believers and for U.S. national security,” he said in a statement.
The bill, three years in the making, became the top priority for the international religious freedom advocacy community after it was separated from USCIRF reauthorization last year.
Among other provisions, the legislation creates a “designated persons list” for egregious violators, a comprehensive religious prisoners list, and an “entity of particular concern” designation for non-state actors such as Boko Haram and Islamic State. It also mandates religious freedom training for all foreign service officers.
Perhaps most important to the advocacy community, the act requires the international religious freedom ambassador, currently David Saperstein, to report directly to the secretary of state and elevates the position within the federal government.
“What Chris [Smith] has done is give that office a lot of teeth and give the ambassador a lot more clout,” Wolf told me in a phone interview.
Wolf said some elements of the bill should have been included in the original law in 1998, but the Bill Clinton White House and the business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opposed them. The result was compromise legislation that passed at the tail end of the session.
Similarly, lawmakers waited to approve the current legislation until the last possible moment. It passed the House last May, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t vote on it until last week, and the full Senate unanimously approved it in the early morning hours on Saturday.
“I’m glad we were able to get this bill done this year,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the primary Senate sponsor, who urged President Barack Obama to sign it promptly. “Every day, the headlines speak to the necessity of this legislation—a bombing targeting peaceful worshippers at a Cairo church over the weekend, another deadly self-immolation in Tibet last week, and a mob attack against a mosque belonging to Pakistan’s beleaguered Ahmadiyya community just yesterday.”
Since the Senate version included one amendment, it had to go back to the House for approval, which happened Tuesday afternoon during a pro forma session. Wolf credited Smith and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for getting the legislation to the finish line.
“Had the bill not passed, it would have been a defeat for human rights and religious freedom,” Wolf said. “It would have been a terrible message to the church in China, Nigeria, and Iran—to those being persecuted.”
Nobel laureate examines preschool for babies
Interpretations of the findings vary among advocates and experts
By Kiley Crossland
(WNS)--A new study by a Nobel prize-winning economist has some asking the question: Why not start public school at birth? But others caution that not all government early childhood programs get such good results, and interpreting the study so broadly could do more harm than good.
Economist James Heckman’s previous work has been influential in rallying bipartisan support for public preschool initiatives. His latest study, released this week, found two specific programs caring for disadvantaged children from infancy to age 5 had an even higher return on investment than preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The study, Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program, followed lower-income children who participated in two North Carolina programs in the 1970s. The programs started when the infants were 8 weeks old and ran five days a week for nine hours a day. Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development, studied the participants, about 200 in total, from birth to age 35.
The research found the children in the high-quality, zero-to-5 programs were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to be incarcerated, had higher IQs, and were healthier than children who stayed home or enrolled in low-quality programs. The “high-quality” ingredient was vital: These programs included intentional and consistent interaction between adults and children. Heckman noted the results were completely different for programs without that engagement.
By monetizing the benefits of the high-quality program—reduced healthcare costs, reduced crime, greater earnings, more education—Heckman estimated the return on investment for the zero-to-5 programs was 13 percent per year, up from the estimated 7-10 percent return per year for preschool programs.
That’s good news, and bad news, according to Katharine Stevens, a resident scholar in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on early childhood education. The good news is, taking into consideration the number of disadvantaged children already in childcare programs, this study shows “we have an extraordinary opportunity to move the needle for those children by taking advantage of the fact that they are in childcare, and by using that time well,” she said.
But the bad news, said Stevens, is just putting children from infancy in similarly titled programs without the same quality is not going to achieve the same results. The answer is not starting many new early childhood programs beginning in infancy. Research has shown no clear link between all early education programs and long-term benefits for the child.
“The early years for children are crucial and we are not doing enough,” said Stevens. But overstating the evidence of a narrow study undermines people’s ability to pay attention to the evidence that really matters.
So what really matters from this study? Stevens said Heckman’s research underscored what common sense had already shown: A well-done program has quantifiable financial benefits, and inadequate environments can have long-term damaging effects on children.
One more key driver, said Stevens, was the North Carolina program had a two-generational approach that engaged the mothers through the whole process. Given that the most influential factor on any children is their family, it’s unlikely, said Stevens, they would have had the same success if they had “simply taken the children for 50 hours a week and left the mothers alone.”