Teachers: High Court opens way for taxpayer dollars for religious schools
Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling "perverse." "Never before in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education." | Elaine Thompson/AP

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision allowing Montanans tax credits to pay for tuition at private – read “religious” – schools will cut dollars available to public schools and kids, the nation’s two big teachers unions say.

And the June 30 ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, just re-emphasizes the importance of courts – and federal judges – to schools, students, teachers, workers, and voters, adds National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia.

That means, the primary grades teacher from Salt Lake City declared, that who picks judges – the president — and the senators who will vote on those picks should be a key issue at the ballot box this November.

Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten agreed with that electoral objective, saying teachers would redouble their efforts to beat their foes at the ballot box this fall.

“When it comes to Donald Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’s attacks on public education, we will see them in November,” Weingarten said of the right-wing GOP president and his anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-public school Education Secretary.

The court’s ruling was a win for school privatizers. DeVos, a GOP big giver who attended private schools and who also hates public school students of color. She has tried throughout Trump’s term to cut federal funds for public schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, called the ruling “a seismic shock that threatens both public education and religious liberty.” | Cliff Owen/AP

In parallel, she’s schemed to funnel cash in the form of taxpayer-paid vouchers to parents of private, especially religious, school students. DeVos has even used $180 million in the new money Congress sent her way in March’s $2 trillion economic stimulus law to do so.

Both the cuts and the cash flow are favorite causes of the Religious Right and the corporate class. The corporate class, Eskelsen-Garcia notes, has public school privatization – along with “privatizing” other public services – atop its agenda.

That school defunding upsets NEA, AFT and the School Administrators (AFSA), the union for principals, counselors and other officials. AFT and NEA both rejected the GOP-named court majority’s argument, articulated by Roberts, that the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion, in the First Amendment, bars governments from withholding aid to any school strictly on the basis of religion.

AFSA echoed the financial harm the ruling would have on public schools, by quoting Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “’Backpack funding’ is when taxpayer money follows the student to the public school, private school, home school or charter school,” Burris said. “Proponents argue it will not hurt the children or taxpayers of the local public school, because when the student leaves, school costs will be reduced equal to the money in the backpack. That argument is false.” The public school will still have fixed costs – from school buildings to teachers’ pay to textbooks – that won’t decline.

Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher, called the decision “a seismic shock that threatens both public education and religious liberty.” And it’s “a radical departure from our Constitution, American history and our values. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent, this ruling is ‘perverse.’”

“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise (of religion) clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education,” she declared.

Yanking away money from public schools in favor of state-sponsored scholarships via tax credits  – vouchers by another name – funneled directly to private schools to pay for specific kids’ education, “will hurt both the 90% of students who attend neighborhood public schools” and the religious schools, Weingarten warned.

That’s because while the cash will be siphoned away from public schools, with state funds come state requirements: “Curtailing their freedom with the accountability that comes with tax dollars,” in Weingarten’s words.

That may be a saving grace, one attorney specializing in such issues says. The lawyer added there’s nothing in the majority decision that stops states from telling the private schools that will now get the cash through tax credits, vouchers, or any other way, who they can or, to be more precise, cannot, discriminate against, for example.

Still, “the court’s narrow conservative majority joined with Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and other wealthy donors and special interests to attack public education and turn the First Amendment on its head. What’s even more disturbing is that some justices wanted to go even further,” Weingarten said.

Eskelsen-Garcia made those points, and many more, in a lengthy statement dissecting the court’s ruling.

“The court should not transform the federal free exercise (of religion) clause into a mandate for state funding of religious schools,” NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien wrote last September, just before her union, and others, sent friend-of-the-court briefs to the justices, siding with Montana’s.

National Education President Lily Eskelsen Garcia warned both Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that voters will remember their attacks on public education in November. | Calvin Knight/NEA Today

“By ruling for the plaintiffs” – the parents who sued to get the $500 yearly tax credits to help pay for private school tuition – “the court today appeared to do just that, in the process clearing a legal path for the expansion of school voucher programs across the country,” NEA added.

“At a time when public schools already are grappling with protecting and providing for students despite a pandemic and mounting budget shortfalls, the court has made things even worse opening the door for further attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools,” said Eskelsen-Garcia.

“The detrimental impact this decision will have on students throughout this country is shameful and unacceptable.”

She too, aimed at Trump’s Education Secretary and her campaign to defund public schools in favor of private and religious ones. “DeVos’s myopic mission has nothing to do with helping with students, but it has everything to do with privatizing public goods and services for private profit,” the NEA chief added.

“Rest assured, educators will put that same level of energy into firing DeVos and electing a new president in November because it’s the best thing we can do for our students and for the future of this country.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.