High anxiety in Maine over pending Supreme Court ruling on public funding of religious and private schools

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Educators are eagerly awaiting a major ruling in a Maine-centric U.S. Supreme Court case, due this month, that could overturn restrictions on the use of public funding for religious schools and other private schools.

The High Court is considering an appeal in a case called Carson v. Makin, which stems from a 2018 lawsuit filed by three Maine families against the state Department of Education. The lead advocate for the families is the Institute for Justice, which has won similar school choice and religious freedom challenges in the current conservative-majority Supreme Court in recent years.

“It’s really just been a push by those who want to privatize public education and have vouchers,” said Grace Leavitt, a Spanish teacher and current president of the Maine Education Association. “It will divert taxpayers’ money from our public schools.”

Maine does not have a voucher program, which would give families money to opt out of local public schools and attend a private school instead. The law at issue in this case is more limited, focused on students in predominantly rural districts that have no public high school at all.

State law requires these districts, if they do not have an agreement to use a public school in another city, to pay tuition for students to obtain an equivalent education at an approved private school elsewhere. , in or out of state.

Fellow plaintiffs Troy and Angela Nelson believe they would be denied use of public money to send their daughter to the private Temple Academy in Waterville, which teaches the ‘deeply Christian and biblical worldview’ they say want for their children.

As of October 2020, according to court records, more than 4,000 of these students were attending one of Maine’s quasi-public academies, which receive 60% of their funding from the state. Fewer than 700 more students used the tuition program to attend other private schools.

Schools that receive this state funding must meet educational and management standards. Since the 1980s, they must also be “non-sectarian,” consistent with the state’s definition that desired basic education is religiously neutral. This case could change if and how these private schools can receive state funding, and how the state oversees them.

Families who have sued the law, led by David and Amy Carson of Glenburn, a small suburb of Bangor, say Maine’s law unfairly excludes religious schools like the ones they want help sending their children to. They argue that this violates their First Amendment rights.

“No student should be denied an educational opportunity simply because, for their situation, a religious education makes sense. Yet that is precisely what Maine is doing,” the families’ lead attorney at the Institute for Justice, Michael Bindas, said in a video about the case last year. “It’s definitely something the Supreme Court should clarify, it’s not allowed.”

The lower courts disagreed, ruling in favor of Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin and prior precedent in finding that the state was within its rights to limit the scope of the education program. tuition assistance.

“It was really just a push from those who want to privatize public education and have vouchers. This will divert taxpayers’ money from our public schools.

Grace Leavitt, Spanish teacher and current president of the Maine Education Association

But members of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority have strongly signaled in December’s oral argument and related rulings that they could overturn those earlier rulings and use this case to expand the constitutionality of public funding for religious purposes.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education declined to comment until a decision is made. The call focuses on two of the Maine families in original costume. The Carsons both attended Bangor Christian School as children, according to the Institute for Justice, which describes itself as a Washington-area “libertarian” nonprofit public interest law firm, DC.

The Carsons’ hometown of Glenburn does not have its own secondary school, so they paid to send their daughter Olivia to Bangor Christian School, despite being eligible for public funding for a non-sectarian private school. They say in the case that they believe that Bangor Christian’s religious affiliation would exclude him from the schooling program.

Fellow plaintiffs Troy and Angela Nelson believe they would be denied use of public money to send their daughter to the private Temple Academy in Waterville, which teaches the ‘deeply Christian and biblical worldview’ they say want for their children.

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Steve Bailey leads the Maine School Management and School Board Associations, which filed one of several amicus briefs with the Supreme Court urging against such a move. He said he believed the families behind the lawsuit were well-meaning, but feared a ruling in their favor would “wreak havoc” on Maine’s public education system.

Bailey said he was concerned about two major implications: that the already limited funding for public schools would be diluted by families newly able to get help to attend private religious schools, and that the programs of those schools will be significantly outside of Maine’s agreed educational goals.

“That amount of money that is there to support students attending public schools would then be allowed to be spread over a much different and potentially wider population,” Bailey said last week. “I think this is an attempt to expand or go beyond the intent, as well as the responsibility, of the state and cities to pay for religious education.”

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Maine Assistant Attorney General Sarah Forster also focused on public education in her arguments, saying the tuition program aims to provide free education in a heavily rural state.

“By excluding sectarian schools, Maine refuses to fund a single explicitly religious use: an education designed to proselytize and instill in children a particular faith,” Forster wrote. She has received support from amicus briefs from the Biden administration, the state of Vermont and others.

Forster argues that it’s also unclear whether the Carsons’ and Nelsons’ religious schools of choice would even accept public money. Representatives for Bangor Christian and Temple said they would refuse to do so if, to comply with other state laws, they had to change internal policies that prohibit the hiring of gay teachers and discriminate against LGBTQ students.

MEA’s Leavitt said that problem is exactly the kind of thing a fair, non-sectarian public school system is designed to avoid.

“We want an educated population. This is what our public education system is for,” she said. “We don’t want schools that exclude students or that don’t welcome all students.”

This story was produced by Maine Monitor, a non-profit media outlet operated by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, and reproduced with permission.

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