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An Upcoming Supreme Court Ruling Could Starve Public Schools—In Favor of Religious Ones

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Image result for Alice HermanOn January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear 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 case—which will be litigated by the conservative law group, Institute for Justice—are asking that the court rule 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, argue 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 than 20 states are already redirecting public funds into private education. Public schools, already strapped for resources, face increasingly limited budgets when public money is diverted to private schools. In Illinois, a so-called “school choice” state, public school teachers and staff went on strike for 11 days beginning on October 17  to demand support staff in every school and smaller class sizes. The Chicago Teachers Union has identified voucher programs as a cause of underfunding in the city’s public schools. Michelle Gunderson, an activist in the Chicago Teachers Union, says that in her school—where she teaches first grade—persistent underfunding, exacerbated by the state’s funding of private education, has led to unmanageably large classes populated by kids with high needs.

“I 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,” Gunderson says. “We can’t go through the siphoning off of our public funds into voucher systems.” Although vouchers are billed 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. The programs, Gunderson says, “[end] up subsidizing the schooling of fairly wealthy children.” In fact, in Illinois, up to 28 percent 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.

The origins of the Espinoza 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 “no-aid” clause in the state’s amendment—so the petitioners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the event that the Supreme Court rules in the plaintiff’s favor, public funding for private education will increase not only in Montana, but in the 37 states whose constitutions ban the provision of public funds for religious schools. Over 65 percent of private schools are religious, and of those schools, over 78 percent are Christian.

David Armiak of the Center for Media and Democracy pointed out the utility of the case to the right wing, which, he argued, “is increasingly embracing the Christian right.” To that end, Koch-funded organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have allied with the Christian legal groups pushing anti-LGBTQ litigation like the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s ruling that allowed a bakery to refuse service to a gay couple. Because Espinoza could result in nationwide subsidies for Christian education, conservative Christian organizations have jumped on the case, filing five amicus briefs in the petitioners’ favor. The Institute for Justice, which is litigating Espinoza and has ties to both ALEC and the Koch brothers, has in the past pushed for publicly funded religious education in Ohio and Arizona.

The Espinoza case forms part of the broad conservative legal strategy to weaken labor and public education, which right-wing organizations have identified as electorally powerful—and progressive. Janus v. AFSCMElitigated 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 “opt-in” to pay union fees, starving unions of dues, their traditional source of funds. 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, and myriad other anti-labor organizations funded by Koch and Bradley Center money.

The Janus ruling has only animated the right-wing effort to undermine labor unions: Since the summer of 2018, conservative groups have hired canvassers to encourage union members to opt out of paying dues and sued unions for member payments made before Janus went into effect. The ongoing assault on labor has taken place alongside the gutting of public education; internal Bradley Center documents, reported by In These Timesdescribed the organization’s aim to “defund teachers unions and achieve real education reform” 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 been replicated throughout the country.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has filed an amicus brief in the Espinoza case. She pointed out, on a press call on January 16 that this case is spearheaded by “the Institute for Justice, which has collected tens of millions of dollars from the Waltons, the Devos’s, Charles Koch, the Lynde & Harry Bradley foundation.” The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the late Walmart owners Helen and Sam Walton, has funded multiple school privatization efforts, while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s family has long adopted school privatization as an ideological mission. Similarly, the Koch political network and  Lynn & Harry Bradley Foundation have both sustained anti-labor efforts around the country.

“If you peel back the layers,” 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.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at a restaurant. She contributes regularly to Isthmus, Madison’s alt-weekly, and The Progressive magazine.

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Today’s Bad Idea: Merge Labor and Education Departments

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The Trump administration today proposed to merge the Department of Labor into the Department of Education.

While some have suggested that the new department be christened the “Department of Child Labor,” the Trump administration has come up with the “Department of Education and the Workforce.”

Some may be experiencing a sense of déjà vu at this name change.  In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives changed the name of what had always been the Education and Labor Committee to the Education and Workforce Committee. Democrats replaced “Workforce” with “Labor” when they regained the majority in 2007, and the Republicans duly changed it back to “Workforce”when they regained the majority again in 2011.

In short, the word “labor” sounds too much like “labor movement” and those nasty, unpleasant, trouble-making labor unions.

We’ll see what happens when the Democrats retake the majority after the November elections.

Some have suggested that they could christen the new agency the “Department of Child Labor”

While the alleged purpose of this merger is to consolidate vocational skills training programs in one agency, the real goal is, as the Washington Post describes, to build “on Trump’s pledge to shrink the size and scope of the federal government, a long-sought goal of conservatives.”  And of course, draining the swamp:

“This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget who has led the 14-month reorganization effort, said in a statement. “The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” he added.

Now, there are several reasons why this is a bad idea. Chris Lu, Deputy Secretary of Labor during Obama’s second term notes that only parts of DOL and Education deal with worker training. Most of the Department of Labor consists of enforcement agencies like OSHA, MSHA, Wage & Hour and OFCCP that protect workers’ health and safety, pay, benefits and anti-discrimination rights.

And while neither OSHA, nor MSHA, nor enforcement were mentioned by Mulvaney, the idea of turning OSHA and MSHA into educational agencies that just provide education,  training and fact sheets to employers is probably appealing to Republicans and the business community.

Seth Harris, who was Deputy Secretary of Labor under Obama’s first term, calls the proposal “a solution in search of a problem” and predicts that it’s not going to happen. Any major reorganizations of Cabinet departments require Congressional approval — which means 60 votes in the Senate — and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

These type of major reorganizations rarely succeed because there are too many powerful organizations that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Lu notes that “there are also training programs at HHS, Interior, USDA, EPA, VA, DOD, DOJ. Shifting all of those programs would cause a firestorm on Congress and with outside groups.”

The National Employment Law Project points out that the Trump administration’s track record on labor issues doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this proposal is being done in the best interests of workers:

This latest half-baked idea is just one more betrayal of the very workers Donald Trump pledged to put front and center when he took the oath of office. Since then, his administration has—among other things–relaxed protections for workers’ retirement savings, weakened overtime pay rights, attacked workers’ unions, rolled back important health and safety protections that would protect workers from hazardous substances on the job, and pushed through a massive tax bill that further enriches corporations and the nation’s wealthiest at the expense of workers and their families.

So if swamp draining is the goal, I have a few suggestions.  Merge ethically challenged Cabinet officers like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos with the unemployment office (even though only Pruitt would probably need the assistance.)  Then get these agencies back to accomplishing their missions: protecting workers, the environment, public housing and public schools) and, as Chris Lu says, “fill vacant positions with competent people, provide agencies with sufficient funding, and stop denigrating federal employees. ”

This blog was originally published on June 21, 2018 at Confined Space. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).


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18 states are suing Betsy DeVos for putting for-profit college fraudsters over student borrowers

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Betsy DeVos is making it harder for students to get loan forgiveness after being cheated by for-profit colleges, but Democratic attorneys general across the country are challenging her in court. DeVos has had the Education Department put a hold on new rules that were supposed to take effect on July 1 protecting student borrowers—protecting student borrowers is definitely not what Betsy DeVos is about, let’s be clear on that—and 18 states are going to court to get the rules put back in place.

An existing federal law allows borrowers to apply for loan forgiveness if they attended a school that misled them or broke state consumer protection laws. Once rarely used, the system was overwhelmed by applicants after the wave of for-profit failures. Corinthian’s collapse alone led to more than 15,000 loan discharges, with a balance of $247 million.

Taxpayers get stuck with those losses. The rules that Ms. DeVos froze would have shifted some of that risk back to the industry by requiring schools at risk of closing to put up financial collateral. They would also ban mandatory arbitration agreements, which have prevented many aggrieved students from suing schools that they believe have defrauded them.

DeVos really is stepping in in favor of fraudulent schools over defrauded students—and taxpayers—in other words.

“Since day one, Secretary DeVos has sided with for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in unaffordable student loans,” said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, who led the multistate coalition. “Her decision to cancel vital protections for students and taxpayers is a betrayal of her office’s responsibility and a violation of federal law.”

Two students left with debts after their school lied to them about their job prospects are also suing the Education Department over the same issues.

This blog was published at DailyKos on July 6, 2017.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.


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