School vouchers and a Supreme Court nominee

Here’s a topic that hasn’t come up but probably should in the debates over Amy Coney Barrett’s likely tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court: public funding of private schools that discriminate.

Barrett served from 2015-17 on the board of Trinity School at Greenlawn, a South Bend Catholic school, the New York Times reported. Trinity had a policy during Barrett’s time on the board that effectively prohibited same-sex couples from enrolling their children in the school, according to the Times.

Amy Coney Barrett (University of Notre Dame photo)

That would seem to cast doubt on Barrett’s claim in her confirmation hearing that she had “never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference” and would not do so. It also raises policy questions about whether publicly funded institutions should practice discrimination.

In the two years that Barrett was on the Trinity board, the school received over a half million dollars in Indiana voucher program funding. Since the start of the state’s voucher program, Trinity School at Greenlawn has received nearly $2 million in state support for student tuition.

Indiana established its school voucher program in 2011, providing state funding to help families pay tuition at private schools, most of which are religious schools. Students qualify for the program by family income and other factors.

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Court broadens ‘ministerial exception’ in blow to teachers

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that teachers in Catholic schools fall under the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws, potentially stripping protection from thousands of church employees.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

The ruling could be a legal setback for counselors and a teacher at Indianapolis high schools who sued the local archdiocese after losing their jobs for being in same-sex marriages, although it’s too early to know for sure.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that two California elementary-school teachers performed “vital religious duties” even though they were lay teachers who were primarily responsible for teaching general academic subjects.

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Court embraces ‘short-sighted view of history’

It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball Tuesday to the constitutions of 38 U.S. states. What’s truly discouraging is that it did so while vastly oversimplifying American history.

Supreme Court Building, West Pediment

Supreme Court Building, West Pediment

The court ruled, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that Montana couldn’t bar religious schools from participating in a “neo-voucher” program that provided state funding for scholarships to religious K-12 schools. In a 5-4 decision, the conservative majority ruled that barring religious schools was discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The majority opinion — and especially concurring opinions by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — framed the decision as a blow against anti-Catholic bias enshrined in state constitutions via 19th century “Blaine amendments.” But that view papers over complex history, said Steven K. Green, a legal scholar at Willamette University and a leading expert on church-state issues.

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Supreme Court rules for vouchers

The Supreme Court came down heavily in support of religious education when it ruled today that a Montana voucher program that excluded religious schools was unconstitutional. I’ll write more later, but for now, here are a couple of points:

First, the decision doesn’t have any immediate impact on vouchers in Indiana. The Hoosier state, like Montana, has language in its constitution that bars state aid for religious institutions. But the Indiana Supreme Court got around the provision by reasoning that vouchers go to parents, not private schools.

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Court removes one hurdle on discrimination

The Supreme Court delivered a huge victory for LGBTQ rights Monday. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to help teachers and counselors who were fired by Indianapolis Catholic schools for their sexual orientation.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

In a landmark 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination against gay or transgender employees.

“I think it’s a really big deal,” said Suzanne Eckes, an education law professor at Indiana University. “It’s just wonderful news for equity.”

The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices, concluded that the law’s ban on discrimination by sex applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Court could weaken discrimination protections

Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic high schools looked to have a solid case when they sued after being fired for being married to same-sex partners. But the legal ground may be shifting beneath them.

Arguments heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could result in religious schools being given a blank check for widespread employment discrimination.

Supreme Court Building

“It’s important,” said Dan Conkle, a constitutional law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “And depending on how the court decides, it could have pretty dramatic implications for parochial school teachers.”

The case heard Tuesday involves two fifth-grade teachers at California Catholic schools who said they were unjustly fired, one because of her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment. The schools countered with the so-called ministerial exception, which says ministers and others who perform important religious functions aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.

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Supreme Court case ‘a virtual earthquake’ for public schools

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 that the First Amendment created “a wall of separation between Church and State.” A case before the U.S. Supreme Court today could not only tear down that wall – it could declare that efforts by the states to enforce the wall are unconstitutional.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerns a Montana program that provides tax credits for donating to tuition scholarships for private schools, most of which are religious schools. A type of school voucher program, it’s not as blatant as the Indiana program that directly funds tuition for students in religious schools, but it accomplishes the same purpose.

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Stevens was right on vouchers

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died Tuesday, is being remembered for a lot of things: His evolution from Republican corporate attorney to a leader of the court’s liberal bloc. His common-sense and non-ideological approach to the law. And yes, his snappy bow ties.

Those of us who care about education should remember his forceful dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 2002 decision that said it was OK for states to pay for tuition vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens (uscourts.gov)

Zelman was a 5-4 decision. If just one more justice had agreed with Stevens’ reasoning, the school choice landscape in 2019 might look very different.

The case involved a small pilot program in Cleveland that let about 5% of the city’s students receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Susan Zelman, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, challenged the program as an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation.

The majority decision, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reasoned that vouchers were allowable because the state money went to the parents, not directly to religious schools. He justified the decision with a discourse on the poor quality of Cleveland public schools and the choices available within the public system.

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Time to ‘retire segregation’

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools in the United States are intensely segregated and are growing more so, according to a new analysis by scholars at UCLA and Penn State.

Supreme Court Building

But the demographics of schools have changed since the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” regardless of resources.

In 1954, the U.S. had a large white majority and a small black minority, and the groups were taught separately in 17 Southern states. Today, whites are fewer than half the students in public schools, there are more Latino than African American students, and schools are more segregated in the North.

In another change, suburbs of the largest metro areas have become more racially diverse as black and Latino families find work and homes outside the cities.

“With a truly multiracial student enrollment, it is essential that we revisit Brown to reconceptualize what it means to desegregate our schools so that students from all racial backgrounds can learn together,” the authors write.

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Power prevails in Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that it is unconstitutional for public-employee unions to collect fair-share fees — fees charged to non-members to cover the cost of representing them in collective bargaining and other matters. The decision in Janus v. AFSCME was expected but bizarre.

The court’s majority, after all, are supposed to be originalists who insist the Constitution means what the framers wrote over 200 years ago. Conservative legal critics are likely to mock the idea, expressed by the late liberal justice William O. Douglas, that “emanations” from the text of the Constitution form a “penumbra” in which other rights – such as a right to privacy – can be found.

Yet the five conservative justices looked at the First Amendment, with its five freedoms – of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to petition of the government — and found a sixth in its penumbra:

The freedom to free-ride on union members who willingly pay dues for what they get. Continue reading