On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hearÂ Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that could result in the massive expansion of public funding for private religious schools. The petitioners in the caseâ€”which will be litigated by the conservative law group, Institute for Justiceâ€”are asking that the courtÂ ruleÂ unconstitutional the denial of “public funds’ to religious schools, invoking the First Amendment “freedom of exercise” clause to defend the position. In the event that the court rules in favor of the petitioner, the result,Â argueÂ its detractors, would be tantamount to a mandate for religious voucher programs in every state.
Through voucher programs and tax relief for private school donors, more thanÂ 20 statesÂ are already redirecting public funds into private education. Public schools, already strapped for resources, faceÂ increasingly limitedÂ budgets when public money is diverted to private schools. In Illinois, a so-called â€śschool choiceâ€ť state, public school teachers and staff went on strike for 11 days beginning on October 17Â Â to demandÂ support staff in every school and smaller class sizes. The Chicago Teachers Union hasÂ identifiedÂ voucher programs as a cause of underfunding in the cityâ€™s public schools. Michelle Gunderson, an activist in the Chicago Teachers Union, says that in her schoolâ€”where she teaches first gradeâ€”persistent underfunding, exacerbated by the stateâ€™s funding of private education, has led to unmanageably large classes populated by kids with high needs.
â€śI just had a teacher tell me that she was denied being reimbursed for headphones for one of her students who needs audiobooks because of a disability,â€ť Gunderson says. â€śWe canâ€™t go through the siphoning off of our public funds into voucher systems.â€ť Although vouchers areÂ billedÂ as a resource for low-income families, state-funded private-school scholarships do not always cover the full cost of school tuition, and families who cannot afford to make up the difference cannot ultimately make use of the programs.Â The programs, Gunderson says, â€ś[end] up subsidizing the schooling of fairly wealthy children.â€ť In fact, in Illinois, up toÂ 28 percentÂ of state scholarships for private education went to middle- and upper-income students in 2018. The upcoming ruling could result in the expansion of similar programs throughout all states.
TheÂ originsÂ of theÂ EspinozaÂ case lie in a December 2018 Montana court ruling that a state tax credit program incentivizing charitable donations to private school scholarship funds could not be applied to scholarships for religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court held that the state-implemented tax credit could only be applied to non-religious private schools, per a â€śno-aidâ€ť clause in the stateâ€™s amendmentâ€”so the petitioners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the event that the Supreme CourtÂ rules in the plaintiffâ€™s favor, public funding for private education will increase not only in Montana, but in theÂ 37 statesÂ whose constitutions ban the provision of public funds for religious schools.Â Over 65 percentÂ of private schools are religious, and of those schools, overÂ 78 percentÂ are Christian.
David ArmiakÂ of the Center for Media and DemocracyÂ pointed out the utility of the case to the right wing, which, he argued, â€śis increasingly embracing the Christian right.â€ť To that end,Â Koch-fundedÂ organizationsÂ like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have allied with the Christian legal groups pushing anti-LGBTQ litigation like theÂ Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commissionâ€™s ruling that allowed a bakery to refuse service to a gay couple. BecauseÂ EspinozaÂ could result in nationwide subsidies for Christian education, conservative Christian organizations have jumped on the case,Â filingÂ five amicus briefs in the petitionersâ€™ favor. The Institute for Justice, which is litigatingÂ EspinozaÂ and has ties to both ALEC and the Koch brothers, has in the past pushed for publicly funded religious education inÂ OhioÂ andÂ Arizona.
TheÂ EspinozaÂ case forms part of the broad conservative legal strategy to weaken labor and public education, which right-wing organizations haveÂ identifiedÂ as electorally powerfulâ€”and progressive.Â Janus v. AFSCME,Â litigatedÂ by the Koch-affiliated National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) and the Liberty Justice Center (LJC), dealt a blow to public-sector unions across the country by mandating that union members in all states â€śopt-inâ€ť to pay union fees,Â starving unions of dues, their traditional source of funds.Â Janus, which was decided on June 27, 2018, marked the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Right to Work Foundation, Liberty Justice Center, andÂ myriadÂ other anti-labor organizations funded by Koch and Bradley Center money.
TheÂ JanusÂ ruling has only animated the right-wing effort to undermine labor unions: Since the summer of 2018, conservative groups haveÂ hiredÂ canvassers to encourage union members to opt out of paying dues andÂ suedÂ unions for member payments made beforeÂ JanusÂ went into effect. The ongoing assault on labor has taken place alongside the gutting of public education; internal Bradley Center documents, reported byÂ In These Times,Â describedÂ the organizationâ€™s aim to â€śdefund teachers unions and achieve real education reformâ€ť at the same time. By stripping public schools of funding, while passing anti-labor laws, conservative groups intend to limit the organizing power of the left. One such bill, passed by the state of Wisconsin in 2011, simultaneously defunded Wisconsin public schools and deprived public sector workers of the right to collectively bargain. That piece of legislation, known widely as Act 10, has beenÂ replicatedÂ throughout the country.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has filed an amicus brief in theÂ EspinozaÂ case. She pointed out, on a press call on January 16 that this case is spearheaded by â€śthe Institute for Justice, which has collected tens of millions of dollars from the Waltons, the Devosâ€™s, Charles Koch, the LyndeÂ & Harry Bradley foundation.â€ť The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the late Walmart owners Helen and Sam Walton, hasÂ fundedÂ multiple school privatization efforts, while Education Secretary Betsy DeVosâ€™s family has long adopted school privatization as an ideological mission. Similarly, the Koch political network andÂ Lynn & Harry Bradley Foundation haveÂ bothÂ sustainedÂ anti-labor efforts around the country.
â€śIf you peel back the layers,â€ť she added, “you see that the real agenda here is to silence parents, to silence teachers, silence students, and silence those who are trying to make the public schools schools that our kids want to go to.”
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.