Montana parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court last week, asking the court to overturn a ruling that found tax-credit scholarships unconstitutional in the state.
The Montana Supreme Court had ruled 5-2 in December that the state’s tax credit scholarship program violated the state’s constitutional bans aid to sectarian schools. The ruling allowed the state to create a new tax credit scholarship program for students to attend only non-religious private schools.
“It is a bedrock constitutional principle that the government cannot discriminate against religion,” said Institute for Justice attorney Erica Smith in a press release. “Yet for the past 24 years, some states have blocked religious schools and the families who choose them from participating in student-aid programs. It is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and settle this issue once and for all.”
At issue is Montana’s Blaine Amendment, a relic of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bias that swept America in the late 19th century. The amendment is still on the books and bans direct and indirect aid to religious schools.
Florida has a similar ban on aid to religious institutions, though these arguments failed to sway the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Holmes (2006) and McCall v. Scott (2017).
Scholarship parents in Montana are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if banning participation in educational programs because of religious preferences ultimately discriminates against religious parents in violation of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Past U.S. Supreme Court cases also come into play, such as Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which ruled vouchers did not violate the Establishment Clause because aid was to the student and not the religious institution.
The Court also has rejected the notion that tax credits are equivalent to tax expenditures by the government in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011).
More recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017) that state governments could not deny grants to religious organizations for playground resurfacing while providing grants to similar, but non-religious organizations. Denial of the grant, the court ruled, violated the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.
In light of that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to revisit Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District (2015), which found the district-run voucher program violated the state’s Blaine Amendment ban on direct aid to religious schools. However, the voucher program was dismantled and the issue rendered moot after the American Federation of Teachers funneled $600,000 into local school board election and took over conservative Douglas County.
Blaine Amendments have successfully struck down vouchers in Arizona and Montana but failed in Florida, Nevada and Oklahoma.
If the appeal from the Montana parents is accepted, a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court likely would clarify how states may read their respective Blaine Amendments.
School shooting is top story: A gunman’s murder of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14 is voted the top story of the year in the Associated Press’ annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors. The shooting spurred security reforms at schools across the country and launched a student-led movement, March for Our Lives, that helped organize walkouts, peaceful protests and a campaign for stricter gun laws. Associated Press. The dozen biggest K-12 education technology stories of the year. Education Week.
Panic alarms bill: State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, files a bill that would require at least one silent alarm, also known as a panic button, in every public school building that would instantly alert local law enforcement. Book calls S.B. 174 “Alyssa’s Law,” in memory of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old student who was killed during the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High. News Service of Florida. Orlando Weekly. Sun Sentinel.
Florida voters will not be voting this fall on whether to make the state constitution more amendable to school vouchers.
The state’s Constitution Revision Commission is still finalizing its proposals for the November ballot. But two proposals that might have drawn the attention of private school choice advocates won’t be in the mix.
One of those proposals would have struck Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment. The debate around that now-scuttled proposal could hold insights for school choice advocates looking to overturn provisions in state constitutions that bar public aid to religious institutions.
Commissioner Roberto Martinez is a Miami lawyer who supported the proposal. He pointed to programs like a prison substance-abuse program that faced a legal challenge from the Council for Secular Humanism. Courts ultimately ruled the program’s faith-based providers do not violate Florida’s Blaine Amendment.
“I say this with all respect to the judges who were involved in those opinions. They performed legal jiu-jitsu in order to find the programs in effect constitutional, and not in violation of the no-aid provision, even though those programs provided aid to a religious organization,” Martinez said while debating the proposal last week.
If judges had blocked the program — which, he argued, the state constitution technically requires — they could have wound up on a collision course with the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year found it was unconstitutional to exclude religious schools from a program the helped fund safe playground equipment.
Since Florida judges kept the door open for faith-based substance-abuse services, the state’s “no-aid” provision remains safe from a federal challenge that could gut it — at least for now.
Housing for teachers: It’s becoming harder for Miami-Dade County teachers to find a place they can afford to rent in Miami-Dade County. So the county and the school district are collaborating on a plan to build apartments for teachers above a new school. The first phase of the plan would be to tear down an abandoned public housing project near Southside Elementary School in the Brickell area and build a school for grades 6-8. One floor would be used for apartments, with other floors devoted to parking and classrooms. “When you look at teacher salaries, it’s just impossible for them to get into the housing market,” says Ned Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center. If it’s successful, the county and board will propose building a 300-apartment complex next to Phillis Wheatley Elementary, just north of downtown. Miami Herald.
Education court case: Now that the legislative session is over, the Florida Supreme Court will resume its review of the lawsuit that alleges the state has violated its constitutional role to fund an “an efficient, safe, secure and uniform high-quality education.” Legislative leaders asked the court to suspend its review during the session. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled that the question of financing was not an issue for the judicial branch. The case, Citizens for Strong Schools, was filed in 2009. Gradebook.
Atheists offer signs: The Tampa-based group Atheists of Florida is offering to provide signs with the saying “In God We Trust” free to every school in Florida to fulfill a requirement in the recently passed education bill. “We want to help educate about the First Amendment and the establishment clause, as well as about the diversity in our country,” says executive director Judy Adkins. One of the versions would state “E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust” in a circle with red, white and blue stars and stripes. The outside of the circle would contain words from the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Gradebook.
No end to board pay: The Constitution Revision Commission rejects a proposal to end pay for members of local school boards. A majority of the members expressed concerns that ending pay would limit the diversity of candidates, especially in poor and rural counties. “If you cannot work for free, you cannot be a school board member with this proposal,” St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson argued. Eight other proposed amendments will be discussed and voted on at a future meeting. Gradebook. Politico Florida.
Charter school authorizers: A proposed amendment to create charter school authorizers other than local school boards is changed to allow outside entities to also start public schools. By state law, that authority to start free public schools largely rests with local school boards. Commission member Erika Donalds, who introduced the original proposal, backs the amendment, which was brought by Patricia Levesque. redefinED.
Blaine Amendment: Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero urges the Constitution Revision Commission to support a proposal that would end the prohibition against state money going to religious institutions, including schools. Citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Cantero says the Blaine Amendment is likely to be declared unconstitutional. redefinED. News Service of Florida.
Flu concerns: The flu virus is sweeping the state with 107 outbreaks already reported. Ninety-four percent of those reports are from schools and health-care facilities. Baker, Bradford and Holmes counties have had elevated activity, according to the Florida Department of Health, and 46 of the state’s 67 counties are reporting increasing flu activity. Only Jackson County has reported no cases. Several school districts have sent warnings home to parents. Tampa Bay Times. WOKV. Keynoter. Gainesville Sun.
Florida’s prohibition on public aid to religious institutions grew out of anti-Catholic bigotry. It’s also outdated, a former state Supreme Court justice told a panel working revisions to the state’s governing document. And it likely violates the U.S. Constitution.
Former Chief Justice Raoul Cantero, now a lawyer in private practice, urged the education committee of the Constitution Revision Commission to support a proposal that would erase Florida’s Blaine Amendment.
The “no-aid” provision has come up in lawsuits against voucher programs that fund scholarships to religious schools. It’s been used to challenge groups providing substance abuse counseling in state prisons. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year suggested federal justices think blanket prohibitions on public funding of religious institutions are unconstitutional.
Teacher evaluations: Local school boards would be given the power to set evaluation standards for teachers, if a bill filed in the House gets through the Legislature next year. H.B. 427, filed by Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, would allow school districts to opt out of the state teacher evaluation and merit pay plan and give them the option of creating their own standards for evaluating teachers. “It would return the authority back to the local school board, which I think is very important,” says Orange County School Board member Linda Kobert. Florida Politics.
Graduation rates: The U.S. high school graduation rate hit an all-time high at 84.1 percent in 2016, according to data from the National Center for Education. In 2015 it was 83.2 percent. Florida’s graduation rate was 80.7 percent. White students graduated at an 85.1 percent rate, blacks at 72.3 percent and Hispanics at 75.6 percent. Education Week.
Contract negotiations: The Hillsborough County teachers union calls the latest pay offer from the school district disappointing. The district is offering $1.8 million for bonuses to spread among the 20,000 employees represented by the union. The union has asked for the raises school officials promised years ago, which the district says could cost it as much as $17 million and which it says it cannot afford. “This is a pay cut,” says Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the union’s executive director, who says the offer is $92 per person before taxes and won’t cover the increase in health insurance premiums. “I can’t see that satisfying people.” Tampa Bay Times. WTSP. Negotiations between Brevard teachers and the school district resume, but little progress over raises is made. The district is offering $876 to the highest-rated teachers and $600 to effective ones. Union officials countered with a $1,075 raise for highly effective teachers and $800 for effective ones. Florida Today. Space Coast Daily.