OPINION: Supreme Court damages U.S. public schools with vouchers decision

PAI Staff Writer

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority was dead wrong when it decided to further extend public funds – vouchers – to religious schools, say the leaders of the nation’s two big teachers unions.

Not only did the justices’ action tear up the separation of religion and state, but their ruling in a case from Maine could even backfire on the religious schools themselves, because with government funds can come government requirements, AFT President Randi Weingarten noted.

National Education Association (NEA) President Becky Pringle added that the court’s majority “radically rewrote the Constitution” to achieve ideological ends.

In a 6-3 ruling on partisan lines – all six Republican-named justices for, all three Democratic-named justices against – the court decided Maine’s “tuition assistance payments” to parents to send kids to non-public schools cannot discriminate against religious schools, even if those schools discriminate in their own practices.

In Maine’s rural areas, many towns lack public schools, so parents can use the vouchers for public or private schools of their choosing, except private religious schools.

Lawyers for the two Maine couples who sued – provided by a so-called libertarian institute – admitted that the Christian schools the parents preferred actually discriminate against transgender students and won’t hire LGBTQ teachers.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said banning vouchers for use at the religious schools violates the Constitution.

“Maine’s nonsectarian requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment,” he wrote. “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.”

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented. So did Weingarten and Pringle, in their post-decision statements.

“This court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the framers fought to build,” Justice Sotomayor wrote for all three dissenting justices.

In an additional dissent, Breyer said Maine was trying to meet the need to give all students there “a secular public education … and the constitutional need to avoid spending public money to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion.”

Pringle concentrated on the impact on public schools, while Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher who also has a law degree, added: “With public funds comes public accountability” and potential state control and interference. And it raises the probability of taxpayer funding of discrimination through the vouchers, she warned.

“Today the court has decided taxpayers must pay for the private religious education of others,” Weingarten wrote, and that doing so attacks public schools and public education.

“Remarkably and stunningly, even for this right-wing majority, this decision completely vitiates the establishment clause, and with it, separation of church and state, a core constitutional principle that has bound this country together since its founding.

“This ruling creates further strife and tension between taxpayers and people of different religions, which the establishment clause was intended to protect against government preference for any religion,” Weingarten added.

Pringle added: “The public education system remains one of our most powerful institutions for maintaining a democratic society and fostering common understanding among our people.” The court ruling “once again undermined public schools and the students they serve in favor of providing funding for private religious schools that serve only a few and often discriminate against students and employees.

“Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education – even when those private schools fail to meet education standards, intentionally discriminate against students, or use public funds to promote religious training, worship, and instruction – erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students,” Pringle said.

“The Supreme Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution, not invent doctrines to promote radical education policy outcomes. We are witnessing one of the most extreme Supreme Courts in modern history rewrite the most basic social commitments of our society – that publicly-funded education should be free and open to all without discrimination.”

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