Among the recent series of far-reaching decisions from the United States Supreme Court was a less discussed opinion that could pave the way for religious schools to receive public funds.
In Idaho, where some lawmakers have recently pushed to fund private schools through voucher or scholarship programs, the move could have an impact if those lawmakers are successful.
The case originated in Maine and the court ruled 6 to 3 that if public funds are given to a private institution, religious schools must also be considered.
“As long as the state doesn’t fund private schools, it doesn’t have to fund religious schools,” said Jim Jones, former Idaho attorney general and former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Idaho. ‘State. “…But the argument that I’ve made and the folks at Idaho Business for Education have made is that we don’t adequately fund our public schools, as our constitution requires us to, and so we don’t have any reason to provide funds to private schools or church-sponsored schools.
In May, the National Education Association ranked Idaho last in spending per student for the previous school year.
In the 2022 legislative session, the House Education Committee narrowly killed a bill that would have allowed certain state funds to be used for private school tuition and fees . The “Hope and Opportunity Scholarship Program” did not make it to the full House in an 8-7 committee vote. Its opponents questioned whether it would violate the state constitution, which requires the legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform, and comprehensive system of free public public schools.”
This bill was the first of its kind to do so so far, according to education committee chair Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls. He anticipates similar legislation will be introduced when lawmakers return to the Capitol in January.
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, sponsored a bill in 2021 that would have created the “Strong Students Grant Program.” Students attending public and private schools would have been eligible to apply for grants.
“I watched families struggle during the pandemic, especially families where both parents worked,” Horman said.
The importance of voucher programs for Horman is to allow parents to make the decision for their child’s education that doesn’t just depend on where they are, especially when programs change.
“The kind of values that are taught in public school and how that changes from what may have been traditionally taught,” Horman said.
She cited as an example the so-called critical theory of race in the classroom.
Horman believes the federal government has gone too far when it comes to involvement in education and that the recent Supreme Court ruling rightly protects religious institutions from discrimination and exclusion.
Jones said he has noticed a stronger push in recent years to divert taxpayer dollars to private educational institutions, which is an issue championed by the Idaho Freedom Foundation. A June 3 post on the foundation’s Center for Education website praised candidates who support “school choice” and highlighted their success in the May primary elections.
He notes that a number of incumbents who have opposed voucher programs, such as longtime Sen. Jim Woodward and Rep. Ryan Kerby, have lost to challengers who have supported the use of public funds for the private education.
“Each of Idaho’s students is unique and deserves the opportunity to choose the educational environment that best meets that student’s needs, desires, and goals,” the website states. “Idaho lawmakers can move forward with confidence knowing that education choice is an issue that voters support and want to see implemented for the good of Idaho students.”
Clow said efforts are underway to research ways to implement more school choice for the state without negatively impacting public schools.
“It would take, in my mind, more money,” Clow said. “…I’m trying to figure out what would be the best course of action if we go ahead so that we don’t impact the funding of our traditional schools.”
Jones also noted that other recent Supreme Court rulings have made it easier to publicly fund religious institutions, such as a 2020 ruling that ruled that a Montana scholarship program that covered secular private schools but not religious schools private was unconstitutional.
“I see a tendency in current Supreme Court decisions to somewhat undo the separation of church and state that we have been accustomed to in the United States for… centuries,” Jones said.
Clow said that even without the most recent ruling, Montana’s ruling paved the way for religious schools to receive funding regardless of the state’s constitution.
Some Idahoans would favor state vouchers that could go to religious schools. During hearings on Horman’s bond legislation for 2021, residents testified in favor of the bill, citing a desire for more religious options.
“My husband and I would prefer our three children attend a private Christian school that matches our values, morals and beliefs,” Mandi Guy said at the time.
While these higher court rulings may pave the way for access to religious schools for public funding, Jones maintains that it would violate the state constitution if Idaho were to do so. A group of lawyers he formed, called the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, would sue if the Legislature enacts a voucher program or something similar, he said. .
Until the state fulfills previous state Supreme Court mandates to adequately fund education, both in terms of facilities and instruction, Jones said, then it cannot justify the diversion of funds to “competing school systems”.
Agreeing that this legislation would be a violation of the state constitution, BIE President and CEO Rod Gramer does not see this case moving forward.
“If they had any courage and any confidence in their position, they would tell the people about it,” Gramer said.
To make a change to the constitution, an amendment supporting religious funding would have to see a vote with the support of the majority of voters.
“I’m absolutely convinced that if they go to the people of Idaho, they won’t change the constitution,” Gramer said.
Gramer felt that a matter of separation of church and state was seen as a matter of religious discrimination.
“Public schools have to accept everyone,” Gramer said. “If anything, private schools do the screening.”
He cited sexual orientation as a factor in exclusionary practices in private institutions.
Despite potential constitutional issues, he said, Idaho has always pushed for the privatization of education. He thinks it’s a mistake.
Regarding the potential passage of school vouchers, Gramer said, “They’re misleading people saying it’s a huge win.”