Rubber playground material, state constitutions, and choices in education

K-12-Blog

 

As if the new U.S. Secretary of Education’s support for private school choice isn’t enough, now rubber pellets are giving lawmakers and families another reason to consider the value of parental choices in education.

There have been plenty of headlines in just the first four months of 2017 dealing with educational options: Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote in February in favor of Betsy DeVos, longtime school choice advocate, as new education secretary; news that President Donald Trump’s administration may propose a nationwide school choice program governed from Washington; dozens of states considered education savings account bills this session, including Texas; and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature two weeks ago that expanded the nation’s oldest education savings accounts to every Arizona public school child.

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court put school choice back in the news last week. In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, the court considered whether Missouri discriminated against a church preschool by denying the church’s grant application for rubber pellets to resurface their playground because Trinity Lutheran is a religious institution.

Petitioners wrote in their brief, “There is no way for Trinity Lutheran to convert rubber protecting children from injury into the advancement of religious doctrines.”

The case intersects with private educational options for K-12 students because Missouri officials cited the state’s Blaine Amendment in the state constitution. Nearly 40 states have such language in their constitutions, and the amendments are familiar to advocates for parental options in education around the country.

Generally, these provisions prevent individuals and organizations from using public funds for private or religious purposes—with some notable exceptions. Teacher unions and other education associations cite this language in their lawsuits to block education savings accounts and private school scholarship options for families (the savings accounts have survived such challenges in Arizona and Nevada, while unions blocked K-12 private school vouchers in Florida, for example).

Yet for decades, college students have attended private and religious universities using federally-funded Pell Grants and scholarships available under the G.I. Bill. Curiously, unions have not challenged federal higher education scholarships using Blaine Amendments.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in June. If the court rules in favor of Trinity Lutheran, legal experts expect that unions and the axis of associations trying to force all students to remain in assigned public schools, regardless of their needs, may not be able to use Blaine Amendments state-to-state as a weapon any longer. Now that would be a headline.

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