Religious schools have been a point of contention in the debate on educational voucher programs. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday on using public funds for private religious schools is expected to have nationwide ramifications, including potentially some within Nevada.
A decision by the high court’s 6-3 conservative majority ruled that if the State of Maine allows for taxpayer money to pay for tuition at nonreligious private schools, it must also allow for taxpayer money to pay for tuition at religious private schools.
The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, described the Carson v. Makin ruling as “radical” and an attack on public education.
“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 is one of those commitments,” said NEA President Becky Pringle in a statement. “Shamefully, today’s decision tosses aside that social commitment.”
The Network for Public Education released a statement warning that the decision opens the door to mandating the public funding of religious education.
Thirty-seven states, including Nevada, as of 2020 have language in their constitutions prohibiting public funding for schools or educational institutions run by religious organizations, according to Ballotpedia. Nevada’s constitutional amendment has been in place since 1880. These provisions — referred to as “Blaine Amendments” after a Republican congressman who proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to ensure that public funds did not benefit religious organizations — may now be easier to challenge.
The Center for Education Reform on Tuesday released a statement referring to Blaine Amendments and saying it would be “monitoring further expert review of the decision and sharing with states how they can act to allow parents to fully choose the education that best meets their children’s needs.”
NPR reported Tuesday that one possibility is private religious schools seeking public funding by becoming charter schools. One proposed charter school seeking approval from the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority to open has an existing relationship with a private school operated by a church. That proposed school has not received approval, though the reasoning given by board members was not solely based on the potential religious affiliation.
Religious schools have also been a point of contention in the debate on educational voucher programs.
A 2015 private school voucher program passed by the Nevada State Legislature was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, but not because of issues related to religious institutions. Instead, the final ruling on Lopez v. Schwartz, which was filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Educate Nevada Now, found the funding component of the voucher program insufficient.
The issue was revived this year with the filing of two separate but related ballot initiatives by a group called Education Freedom for Nevada. Together, the proposals would establish a private school voucher program, which they have dubbed “education freedom accounts,” and would be similar to the 2015 program.
That effort is being challenged by Educate Nevada Now. Again, the legal argument does not center around issues related to religious institutions but instead on issues related to funding and impact on the state’s public school system.
A district court earlier this year ruled against the proposed voucher program, but the decision has been appealed and heard by the Nevada Supreme Court. Their decision is pending and is expected to be released as soon as this week.
Educate Nevada Now Communications Director Michelle Booth said Tuesday that, while the recent SCOTUS decision may have no immediate impact on their pending case, the ruling is nevertheless “concerning.” If a private school voucher program were to be successfully established in Nevada, it would likely encompass religious schools that are free to deny or discourage admission based on sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
“I’ve spoken to parents of LGBT students and they won’t even try (to send their kid to religious school),” she added. “They know they won’t be accepted. Or they don’t want to put them in an environment that doesn’t accept them.”
ACLU of Nevada was also involved in litigation against the 2015 voucher legislation. “The Supreme Court’s decision today undermines our Constitution’s promise of separation between government and religion,” Wesley Juhl, director communications and outreach with ACLU of Nevada, said Tuesday. “Any practice of feeding public money into private schools that can discriminate against children with disabilities or because of gender identity or sexual orientation is incredibly problematic. But we will not be deterred and we will continue to fight for greater equity in education in Nevada”
Erin Phillips, who heads Education Freedom for Nevada and co-founded the nonprofit advocacy group Power2Parent, called the SCOTUS ruling “a huge victory for families.”
She said the issue of religious schools receiving public funds has always been a talking point of those who oppose voucher programs, and she characterized Tuesday’s ruling as helping solidify that it shouldn’t be.
Phillips points to federal Pell grants given at the collegiate level and Head Start grants for pre-kindergarten programs, both of which can be used at private religious schools.
“This has become a heated point in K-12 but there’s already a precedent,” she said. “This ruling is helpful in moving us forward.”
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