A new front in the right's war on public education
A Catholic charter school is in the works and there's little reason to believe the courts will intervene.
By Lisa Needham
The right wing is waging war on public education on multiple fronts — in the courts, in state legislatures, and at the federal level. It’s a concerted attack, and it’s succeeding.
The latest salvo, designed to spark a lawsuit that would ideally lead to a favorable court ruling from the United States Supreme Court, comes from Oklahoma. There, the Diocese of Tulsa and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma have joined forces to apply to open a Catholic charter school in the state. The executive director of the Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic Church in Oklahoma, stated this will likely prompt “years of litigation” but they are “prepared for the long road” because this is a priority.
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On its face, this move is ridiculous. The First Amendment, of course, demands the separation of church and state, which means tax dollars are not supposed to support religious institutions. That should prevent a state from essentially running a Catholic school. But charter schools are a weird thing, legally. They’re public schools, but they’re run by private entities. Nevertheless, since they ultimately are public, they’re theoretically still bound by the same constitutional requirements as public schools.
However, the United States Supreme Court has been chipping away at this particular portion of the First Amendment for a while now. In 2017, a preschool run by a Lutheran church sued the state of Missouri — and won at the Supreme Court — arguing that it was unconstitutional to stop them from receiving state grant money for a playground. In 2020, the Court held that if Montana granted certain tax credits related to scholarships for private schools, it was unconstitutional discrimination to bar those tax dollars from going to religious schools. And just last term, the Court sided with a Washington state high school football coach who engaged in ridiculously ostentatious prayers at the 50-yard line after games. The root of all these cases is the through-the-looking-glass notion that the only true religious freedom is one where religious conservatives get to do whatever they want.
With all of this, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine SCOTUS holding that the First Amendment requires public tax dollars to go to a Catholic school because a prohibition on doing so “burdens not only religious schools but the families whose children attend or hope to attend them [...] we have long recognized the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children.’” In fact, those are words the Supreme Court already wrote in the majority holding in the 2020 Montana school case.
Put another way, the foundation is already well-built for the Supreme Court to decide that public money must go directly to a school run by a church. And keep in mind, all of these decisions were prior to Amy Coney Barrett joining the Court. The addition of yet another Catholic conservative on the Court further stacks the deck, creating a 6-3 supermajority. Heck, the liberal wing can peel off, say, Chief Justice Roberts on occasion, but it doesn’t matter because conservatives now have a cushion.
Conservatives have never made any secret of their disdain for public education. Take, for example, their multiple attempts to eliminate the federal Department of Education. Ronald Reagan vowed to kill it just a few years after its 1979 inception, but public opinion was wildly against it. During the 2016 presidential campaign, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would eliminate the department if elected. During the Trump administration, his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, wanted to get rid of it and move the employees to the Department of Labor (?!?!). Hardcore right-wing Rep. Tommie Massie (R-KY) is still trying.
But while conservatives in Congress may be making noise about obliterating the federal government’s role in ensuring quality public education, the really grim stuff is happening in the states.
Laboratories of degrading public education
Down in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it his singular mission to create an education system that is actively racist, homophobic, transphobic, and dangerous. Over at Vox, Fabiola Cineas ran down all the measures DeSantis has taken in the last couple of years. There’s the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the law banning trans athletes in high school sports, and the law making it easier for teachers to be armed at school.
Then there’s DeSantis’s latest fight, where he went after the College Board, the nonprofit that owns the SAT test, for having the audacity to expect its African American studies advanced placement course to actually teach African American history. Now, DeSantis is making noise about getting rid of all advanced placement courses in the state because he’s unhappy with the board, which is not a rational way to determine educational policy for a state of 21 million people
Getting rid of AP courses would significantly impact college readiness and scholarship availability for thousands of Florida students, but DeSantis doesn’t care. He cares about winning a culture war and outflanking Trump from the right in 2024, not about ensuring that students in his state get a robust free public education. If he did, he wouldn’t have created a situation where public school classrooms and libraries literally have no books because they haven’t been “vetted” under one of his new laws.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott doesn’t believe the public schools in his state should have to serve undocumented students. It’s a way to narrow access to public education to those who “deserve” or “earn” it rather than understanding public education is a net good that is best when it is free and robust for everyone. Abbott, like many other conservatives, also supports school vouchers, where public dollars follow children to private schools. He’s also really into using smoke and mirrors to claim that public education funding in the state is at an all-time high, which is true only if you ignore inflation and the fact the state gutted education funding after the Great Recession and has never put the same money back on the table.
Former Vice President Mike Pence isn’t in office anywhere right now. Still, he’s going around the country as he considers a 2024 run, and it’s basically a whistle-stop tour whose only purpose is to burnish Pence’s anti-LGBTQ, anti-school bona fides.
In Minnesota, Pence declared there was “a fight over the destiny of our children and the survival of parental rights.” That “fight over destiny” is in the context of schools having policies that support trans kids rather than, say, turning them over to their parents for discipline, indoctrination, and shaming. In Iowa, he hooked up with a group suing a public school district because that district has a policy that they will not reveal a student’s transgender status to parents and will use pronouns and names that align with the student’s gender identity. The group thinks it is a First Amendment violation to be required to use a student’s correct pronouns.
Many other examples could be cited. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the new governor of Arkansas, followed in the footsteps of DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin by making a big show out of banning the instruction of critical race theory as one of her first acts in office.
These are deeply unserious people, but they have a lot of power. Pence’s viewpoint is not an uncommon one among conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, which is that parents have absolute authority over their children. Public education undermines that authority by requiring children to participate in a pluralistic society where different values are respected and celebrated. In public school, children may learn ideas that don’t match up with their parents' beliefs. In public school, children may connect with people their parents would find objectionable based on their identity. If you’re looking to enforce a narrow, bigoted worldview, one of the easiest ways to do it is to destroy public schools.
Republicans haven’t succeeded (yet!) in getting rid of the Department of Education. However, the brazen attempt to get tax dollars to go directly to a Catholic school, along with the right’s ceaseless attacks on traditional public schools, demonstrates just how far the right is willing to go to undermine public education in America.
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