Rutledge joins assault on public education in Supreme Court case
The Republican strategy to end public schools as we know them, continues at a steady pace, today with a coalition of Republican attorneys general, including Leslie Rutledge, telling the U.S. Supreme Court that it should allow tax dollars to support religious schools without exception.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge led a coalition of 21 states urging the United States Supreme Court to protect religious freedom in school curricula. The brief argues that the United States Constitution prohibits elective public school programs from discriminating against religious schools.
“We cannot allow states to discriminate against religious schools,” Attorney General Rutledge said. “The Constitution requires respect for religious freedom and parents must be empowered to make the best educational decisions for their children, whether it is a public or private, secular or religious school, and their choice must not be limited by their family’s financial capabilities, zip code or faith.
In that case, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the decision of a federal district court dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims and allowing further discrimination against religious schools. In March, Rutledge successfully led an 18-state brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant review of the lower court’s decision.
Arkansas has a history of success in partnering with private schools, which include religious schools, to increase access to educational options. For example, the Succeed scholarship program, promulgated in 2015, offers private scholarships to students with disabilities, homestay students, and other students. Religious schools are important participants in the Réussir scholarship program. In 2021, Arkansas enacted a new tax credit scholarship program that does not discriminate against religious schools. This program provides funds for private school tuition fees to children of families with incomes equal to or less than 200% of the federal poverty line.
The Arkansas-led briefing was joined by Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. .
Make no mistake, this is an oversized camel sticking its nose into the public school tent. The Arkansas Succeed Scholarship is a thinly disguised voucher program purported to offer alternatives to students with special educational needs, although the state makes little effort to certify the needs or whether they will be met in schools that they choose to attend (most supported by churches in Arkansas.) The 2021 legislature extended the voucher program to everyone, with only an income limit and a limit on the amount available.
Other states have opened the door to unlimited use of vouchers in religious schools (with particularly bad results in Louisiana, to name just one.) This is Arkansas’ future. The argument is that every parent has the right to take “their” state tax money and take it wherever they want, even to support home schooling. Taken to its extreme, it will cripple the system of conventional egalitarian public schools. What’s the point.
The Supreme Court said Montana could not deny tax money to religious schools if it provided tax money to other private, non-denominational schools. The new case comes from Maine, where, according to the New York Times:
Maine requires rural communities without public high schools to organize the education of their young residents in one of two ways. They can sign contracts with schools elsewhere, or they can pay for tuition at public or private schools chosen by parents as long as they are, under the terms of state law, “a non-sectarian school.” in accordance with the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. “
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals said it was not the statute that disqualified a school (link to a church) but a religion-based program.
The families carrying this case want to resolve the question left in the Montana case when Chief Justice John Robert said there could be a difference between an institution’s religious identity and its conduct.
Urging the Supreme Court to hear the Maine case, two families who send or want to send their children to religious schools, represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group, have asked the judges to resolve the open question and to remove the distinction.
If and when this sore point disappears, the pressure will increase to send even more money from state taxes to unfettered religious schools, regardless of what might be taught there.
The Arkansas Constitution makes reference to religion that might come into play on whether religious status frees schools that receive state money from rules that apply to other schools. (Discriminate against public schools, in other words.) The Constitution says:
No human authority can, in no case or in any way whatsoever, control or infringe the right of conscience; and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment, denomination or mode of worship over any other.
I cling to the straws. Money speaks and that is what is driving this attack on public schools.