Will the Supreme Court’s Trinity decision lead to the spread of school voucher programs? – Washington Post
(Update: Adding DeVos quote)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday on a case that public school and First Amendment advocates feared might harm the future of public education in the United States. Will it?
The case is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which the Missouri church sued after being denied state funding to refurbish its preschool playground because, it was told, the state Constitution forbids financially supporting a religious institution. Though the policy in the state has since been changed, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Monday, the justices ruled 7 to 2 that the state’s original decision violated the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion by excluding churches from state programs with a secular intent.
Missouri and several dozen other states have in their constitutions provisions known as Blaine amendments, which forbid the state government from using public funds for “any church, sector or denomination of religion.”
These measures have prevented some legislatures from adopting and implementing school voucher programs — which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition and other educational expenses — while lower courts have offered different interpretations; for example, the supreme courts in Wisconsin and Arizona upheld voucher programs in their states, while the high court in Colorado declared one unconstitutional.
School-choice supporters argue that the Blaine amendments discriminate against religious institutions while voucher opponents say that they protect the doctrine of “separation of church and state” that has been interpreted as the meaning of the establishment clause and free exercise clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
First Amendment advocates see the decision as eroding the doctrine of the separation of church and state. For example, Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement:
“We’re disappointed in today’s decision. Religious freedom should protect unwilling taxpayers from funding church property, not force them to foot the bill. The court’s ruling, however, focuses specifically on grants for playground resurfacing, and does not give the government unlimited authority to fund religious activity.”
But, in fact, the doctrine has been on a slippery slope when it comes to public funding of tuition at religious schools for some time. There are already 25 voucher programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia, according to EdChoice, a pro-school-choice organization, and one federally funded program in Washington D.C.
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are big supporters of expanding school choice, and DeVos hailed the decision that doesn’t crimp it as favorable. DeVos, who has called traditional public schools a “dead end,” has made clear that expanding school choice is her top priority, and the Trump administration has proposed spending at least $1 billion on a new federally funded voucher program. In a statement, DeVos said: