TIME FOR ‘UNFETTERED COMPETITION’
“School choice is sweeping the nation,” writes Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal. “But school choice as we know it won’t fix the American education system.” What is needed, he argues, is “unfettered competition” instead of the piecemeal, “half a loaf” approach with which we are currently saddled.
Fryer alludes to the stunning groundswell of support for school choice in recent years. Since 2021, ten states have passed universal choice measures. It’s a positive development for the world’s most prosperous and powerful nation, which incongruously lags behind many of its peer and non-peer competitors in scholastic outcomes. As Fryer points out, the United States came in 36th in math and 13th in reading in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment. It’s hardly an adequate result for a nation as bold and innovative as our own.
Despite some encouraging signs when it comes to school choice, Fryer argues that our current system remains “more patchwork than panacea.” Against the backdrop of standardized and homogenous public-school curricula, a full-fledged embrace of the free market is necessary if we are to fully unlock our young people’s potential.
Protect The 1st believes school choice supports the full expression of the First Amendment. The First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion must include room for parents to choose schools that reflect their beliefs. Doing so will have the added, bonus effect of alleviating some of the non-stop controversies that so dominate the educational discourse of late.
Consider the endless arguments over textbooks and curricula, from the banning of literary classics like 1984 in Iowa to the “stench of animus” towards religious student groups in California. Consider the persistent attempts to incorporate ideological instruction for children as young as four years old.
With public schools having a monopoly on public education dollars, the only option for many who can’t afford private schools is to accept what’s dished out or simply pick up and move. More choice means more freedom for parents to guide their children’s education by selecting schools that align with their values, or offer education of superior quality.
There has to be a better way, and Fryer is correct that our current Balkanized approach won’t cut it. Advocates must be bolder, he says, submitting that if “we can fully commit to free market principles in education, we can create an education system that unlocks the talents of every student in our lifetimes.”
One way to do that is through education savings accounts, which he writes “allow parents to channel public funds to a variety of educational services, from private-school tuition and microschools to tutoring and online courses.” By funding ESAs at a level comparable to public schools, you give parents real purchasing power. Competition and innovation will result. That is the true underlying principle upon which school choice operates.
Want to send your child to a school that meets all the state requirements but is also a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim school? Want to send your kids to a school with a great literature program? Or one with more of an emphasis on STEM? School choice does that, but first you have to end the public monopoly on education for everyone to have those choices. And we won’t get there unless advocates double down.
In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Senate File 496, a landmark parental rights bill that, among other things, requires schools to remove books that depict a “sex act.” The expansive reach of this law is leading school districts to toss out thought-provoking books and classics of Western literature. The Bible, if it could be admitted to a public school library, might face a similar fate over the Song of Solomon.
The Iowa City Community School District removed 68 books to comply with the law, including James Joyce’s Ulysses and Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Among the hundreds of other books removed by other Iowa school districts are George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. These books have enriched the reading lives of high school students for decades.
Let us propose one test for any content restriction law: if your bill bans 1984, you might be a little too much like the book.
In Arkansas, plaintiffs before a federal court are contesting two provisions in the state’s Act 372. One provision creates a misdemeanor criminal liability for librarians and booksellers, and even parents, who “[furnish] a harmful item to a minor.” The second creates a process by which any citizen can challenge the appropriateness of any book and have it removed from a school or other public library, applying local community standards, with final decision-making power in the hands of local county quorum courts or city councils.
As the plaintiffs assert, the first provision would result in either the widespread removal of books or an outright ban on young people under 18 from entering libraries or bookstores. The second one, they argue, would allow vocal minorities to tell entire communities what they can and cannot read. The judge in this case found the plaintiffs likely to succeed in both claims on the merits based on the overbreadth of these provisions.
If prohibitions, such as the elimination of “sex” from literature is too broad, what kinds of content should be legitimately challenged by parents? As if to answer this question, the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland maintains as part of its elementary school curriculum requirements controversial readings of sexually charged subjects, such as gender transition, and fetish topics like leather and drag queens.
A balance is needed. Our laws have always recognized the need to delineate age-appropriate materials. But laws that are overly broad and vague risk trampling on legitimate First Amendment interests, degrading the educational experience of students, and will only result in costly legal battles.
When legislators stick to crafting laws that support appropriate content curation for school libraries and avoid doomed efforts at censorship, everyone is better off. Legislators would save themselves the embarrassment of having their laws invalidated by courts when they pass messaging bills that are clearly unconstitutional. Parents can be assured their children will be protected from inappropriate content. And students can enjoy the best works from the best writers.
UPDATE: Should Religious Students with Disabilities Get Special Education Funding Available to Others?
Loffman v. California Department of Education
In March, religious parents and schools in California brought a lawsuit challenging a state policy barring them from accessing special education funding for children with disabilities. In August, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled against the plaintiffs, dismissing the case despite clear, contravening Supreme Court precedent supporting their claims. Now, the plaintiffs (represented by the Becket Fund) are appealing before the Ninth Circuit.
It is hard to understand how California can fail to recognize the constitutional implications of its policy, which permits federal and state special education funding for disabled children at secular private schools but prohibits it for religious private schools. This funding originates with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities in America can receive a free, appropriate public education that meets their needs. (The word “public” in this context is a term of art that refers to a “public expense” – either at public or private schools.)
What’s more, there is direct, on-point precedent prohibiting such policies. The U.S. Supreme Court in Carson v. Makin struck down a Maine law which, like the California law, allowed private secular schools and families to access public funding but excluded religious schools and families. Further, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Court held that a law burdening religion triggers strict scrutiny if it allows for discretionary exemptions. There is no compelling government interest in discriminating against religious people; nor does categorically exluding religious institutions from receiving public funding constitute narrow tailoring.
The plaintiffs in this case are Los Angeles-area Orthodox Jewish families who wish to send their special-needs children to Orthodox Jewish schools, as well as two Orthodox Jewish schools that want to welcome children with special needs. Such accommodations are expensive, and IDEA dollars go toward paying for staff training, assistive technology, and programmatic expenses. By all rights, the plaintiffs should be able to access these funds.
Protect The 1st continues to support the plaintiffs and Becket attorneys in their efforts to ensure all students with disabilities in California can receive a quality education in line with their academic needs and religious heritage. To quote Becket’s brief, the California legislature forces parents to “choose between the Jewish education that is their birthright and the governmental special-education assistance they are entitled to as Americans.”
Protect The 1st believes the issue before the court is a simple one: Parents shouldn’t have to choose between the free exercise of their religion under the First Amendment and support for their disabled children.
With the looming inauguration of Governor-elect Jeff Landry, Louisiana may soon become the 11th state in the nation to offer universal school choice – that is, if Texas doesn’t get there first.
Earlier this year, the Louisiana House of Representatives passed HB 98, authorizing the creation of education savings accounts – matching public per-pupil funding levels – that parents can use to send their children to the schools of their choice. The Senate failed to take up the legislation before the session’s adjournment.
With the arrival of Landry in the Governor’s Office, Louisiana will have several reasons to renew their efforts. For one, they are good politics. Sixty-eight percent of adults and 75 percent of parents with school-aged children in Louisiana support education savings accounts. For another, Landy himself is a strong supporter of school choice, affirming during his 2010 congressional campaign that: “We need to adopt policies that empower parents to make decisions about their own child’s education – including home school, charter schools, church-based schools and other alternatives.”
Protect The 1st wholeheartedly agrees. The school choice movement is vital to the future of American society, improving educational outcomes while offering parents the ability to exercise their First Amendment rights by extending their standards and values across generations. Research proves that choice brings powerful improvements in academic results and in children’s lives. The First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, meanwhile, must include room for parents to choose schools that reflect their beliefs, while adhering to state standards in learning.
Despite claims to the contrary, choice doesn’t hurt or defund public schools. Rather, permitting enrollment competition often improves academic performance at public schools. Furthermore, public school funding is not particularly responsive to enrollment numbers. Local funding often comes from local property taxes, which redound to the benefit of public schools no matter what, in addition to federal Title 1 funding.
Ten states have passed universal school choice since 2021, spreading across the nation like a prairie fire. Texas legislators are currently in the middle of a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott to line up the Lone Star State – the nation’s second-most populous state – for school choice. The Senate has already passed a bill creating education savings accounts – now it’s up to the Texas House.
School choice operates on the principle that competition breeds innovation. Allowing for choice not only empowers parents – it challenges public schools to do better. And more and more states are taking up that challenge.
Whether Texas or Louisiana becomes the next state to offer universal school choice, it’s parents and students who will win.
Can a distinction be made in school libraries between book censorship and sensible curation?
Some books most people would agree are clearly inappropriate – especially for children. On the other hand, giving in to moral panic and succumbing to our more censorial instincts can deprive young people of vital information, not to mention the ability to access many classic literary touchstones.
Consider Florida, where 40 percent of all book bans nationwide took place during the last school year. In July, the state legislature passed HB 1069, revising processes for parental objections to educational materials. The new law allows parents to unliterally ban books by performatively shocking the conscience of school board members through public readings of sexually charged paragraphs. The provision reads:
“Parents shall have the right to read passages from any material that is subject to an objection. If the school board denies a parent the right to read passages due to content that meets the requirements under sub-sub-subparagraph b.(I), the school district shall discontinue the use of the material.”
The language provides a specific roadmap for concerned parents, allowing them to attend school board meetings and read the most explicit passages aloud. If board members order them to halt a reading, the book in question is automatically removed.
According to some accounts, readers are advised by groups, which have targeted books like Slaughterhouse Five and The Kite Runner, that: “You want to get shut down. Only read the dirtiest bits that we give to you.”
Context is everything, of course, and most of us will recognize that books with passages that could be considered objectionable in a vacuum may also convey higher meaning or represent great literary achievements. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye – all contain racy passages and have been subject to book bans at one point or another.
An opposite danger is ignoring the rights of concerned parents. In 2022, the Montgomery County School Board introduced a series of “LGBTQ+-inclusive texts” as part of its required curriculum for children as young as four years old. These include works focusing on gender transition and same-sex infatuation, even sexual fetish topics like leather and drag queens – subjects that are obviously outside a four-year-old’s understanding. Parents were outraged for good reason.
We should all be able to agree that foisting gender ideology discussions on children barely able to tie their shoes is inappropriate. Yet, the board refused to allow parents to opt-out, violating their sincerely held religious beliefs in the process.
In another example of misguided curation policy, the commissioners of Llano County, Texas, responded to complaints about book removals by debating the closure of the Llano County Library System entirely.
In Arkansas, the legislature passed a bill making it a crime for librarians to provide purportedly “harmful” material to minors, but the bill defined this broadly as any book with a description of “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” A judge enjoined the law, pointing out that – as written – any reading material deemed harmful for a five-year-old minor would also be deemed harmful for a 17-year-old minor, despite obvious differences between the two in maturity and comprehension of adult themes and issues. The Supreme Court addressed this concern in Virginia v. American Bookseller’s Association, Inc., suggesting that an interpretation of the term “harmful to minors” that includes speech protected for older minors would raise First Amendment concerns.
Instead of legislation and lawsuits addressing fringe debates, what is most needed in the context of book curation for school-aged minors is common sense. As a nation, we should seek to strike a balance between running roughshod over the rights of parents and throwing out material of literary value or useful for personal development just because it may include a few arguably inappropriate (for some) passages.
As the Supreme Court suggests, teenagers have a right to access reading materials consistent with their age-level and understanding. And, from a public policy perspective, they should also be able to learn about the adult world they are about to enter.
Parents, meanwhile, have a right to direct the upbringing of their children (especially young children) in accordance with their own values, and should absolutely have a say in what they read.
As in all things, moderation – not knee-jerk censorship – is key.
Starting next year, every family in North Carolina will have the option to send their children to the school of their choice.
On Friday, the North Carolina General Assembly approved in the state budget a nearly 300 percent funding increase for its Opportunity Scholarship program, which since 2013 has offered vouchers for lower income students to attend private schools. At the same time, the legislature eliminated all income-based restrictions for the school choice initiative, meaning that every young person in the state who wishes to attend a private educational institution will now be able to do so (though scholarship amounts decline with higher income levels). Meanwhile, state employees – including public school teachers – will receive a seven percent raise.
North Carolina adds to evidence from Illinois – where public school funding is up by almost $2 billion despite a (now-endangered) tax credit for donations to private schools – that educational choice is not a zero-sum game.
North Carolina’s action makes it the tenth state in the nation to offer universal school choice. Governor Roy Cooper announced that he will back off a threat to veto the funding. The program’s future is all but guaranteed.
School choice offers families the chance to create better lives for the next generation. It allows parents to choose a school that fits their child’s particular needs and reflects their own values – options Protect The 1st believes empower parents to exercise their First Amendment rights by extending their standards and values across generations. Moreover, it provides a hopeful alternative for those children relegated to under-performing public schools.
Protect The 1st applauds the North Carolina General Assembly and congratulates Tar Heel State parents, who will no longer have to choose between an empty bank account and limited options in educational choices for their children. Our eyes turn next to Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott intends to call a special legislative session next month to address this same issue. Will Texas become the 11th state?
Like so many issues, school choice is caught in the never-ending spin cycle of interest groups and partisan politics. This is a shame because low-income children in areas where public schools are faltering deserve better options. Protect The 1st sees school choice as especially important because it is helps parents fulfill the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion by having the option to send their children to private schools in their faith tradition.
But politics get in the way – and the rhetoric gets heated.
In a recent interview, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten likened school choice advocates to 1950s-era segregationists. Her remarks did not land well.
Referencing terms like “choice” and “parental rights,” Weingarten said: “Those same words that you heard in terms of wanting segregation post-Brown v. Board of Education, those same words you hear today.”
One person who didn’t much care for Weingarten’s comparison was U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who said in a Tweet (X post): “I can’t think of anything more racist than teachers’ unions trapping poor Black kids in failing school in big blue cities. Randi Weingarten, you’ve done enough damage.”
Sen. Scott grew up Black and poor in South Carolina in a home where the electricity was often turned off. He credits a mentor and a good education – “the closest thing to magic in America” – with turning his life around. He has long been a defender of school choice, calling it “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Like Sen. Scott, we believe that parents should have the opportunity to choose the education that best suits the specific needs of their children – whether it’s a public or private school, religious or secular. Suggesting school choice is some sort of Trojan horse for religious indoctrination perverts the issue, but that’s exactly what Weingarten did. Referring to school choice advocates, Weingarten said: “They want to have basically a Christian ideology, their particular Christian ideology, dominate the country, as opposed to a country that was born on the freedom of the exercise of religion.”
Catholic League president Bill Donohue, like Sen. Scott, took issue with Weingarten’s comments, suggesting that she was engaging in “Christian bashing” (which, like pickleball, seems to be an increasingly popular national pastime). That hostility, by the way, overlooks the broad array of religious schools that are associated with all the great world religions, as well as private and charter schools with a more secular orientation.
Some seem to have a complete disconnect with real-world reality. Look no further than Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates, who recently came under fire for sending her own child to private school. She should have every right to make that choice; it’s the hypocrisy that rankles. In 2022, Gates responded to Sen. Scott: “School choice was actually the choice of racists. It was created to avoid integrating schools with Black children. Now it's the civil rights struggle of our generation?”
Perhaps it is more of a class issue. Gates can afford to send her child to a private school.
An insightful piece from Rick Hess in EducationWeek takes on the idea that one must either be a stout defender of public education or of school choice. He writes “the vitriol is disconnected from what most families care about.” Hess notes that 7 in 10 parents are satisfied with their child’s experience in a public district school, while 7 in 10 also endorse educational savings accounts, school vouchers, and charter schools. Hess writes:
“That’s the real promise of educational choice: It allows parents, educators, and students to blur the old lines and rethink the work of teaching and learning. It’d be a shame if that becomes lost amid the shouting heads and social media outrage.”
School choice offers families the chance to express their values and create better lives for the next generation. We all want public schools to succeed, and we should welcome any opportunity to have a robust discussion on the issues. Educating our children should not be a partisan concern, and name-calling – as they taught us in school – is never the way to resolve our differences.
Illinois’ Invest in Kids scholarship program, funded by private donations eligible for state tax credits, passed in 2017 with bipartisan support. State tax credits are a form of spending. So do teachers’ unions have a point when they claimed that the school choice program could reduce public school funding? New data prove that isn’t the case. Since the 2018-2019 school year, public education in the Prairie State has received a $1.98 billion increase, despite a 7.5% decrease in public school enrollment.
One-hundred and forty-seven thousand fewer students are today being educated by Illinois’ public school system since the 2018-2019 school year. And yet more money is being spent to do it. Scholastic outcomes in the public school system, meanwhile, are worse than ever. Since that time, math proficiency in 3rd through 8th grade students has dropped by six points, while reading proficiency dropped by eight points.
Offering families (and particularly low-income families) the opportunity to choose a better education for their children is central not only to creating good citizens but safeguarding the guarantees of the First Amendment. Senator Tim Scott called it a “civil rights issue,” and he’s not wrong. School choice offers families with few means the chance to express their values and create better lives for the next generation. Yet Illinois recently opted not to renew the tax credits for donations to the Invest in Kids program, which is set to expire on December 31st. We urge Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state legislature to reconsider during the fall session in Springfield – and recommit to offering struggling families a lifeline.
They’ll hardly be alone in doing so. Today, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have private school choice programs. They can’t all be wrong.
Research shows that for every student attending a private school, a state saves between $1,650 and $3,000. Ninety-six hundred students in Illinois rely on Invest in Kids – and there are 26,000 families on the waiting list. That’s one math problem that the governor and legislators can solve.
When Will States Finally Adhere to Supreme Court Guidance on Religious Schools?
Two Catholic parishes recently filed a lawsuit seeking to challenge a Colorado law that excludes faith-based preschools from participating in the state’s “universal” preschool funding program. Created in 2022, Colorado’s Universal Preschool Program was designed to provide all children access to a free, quality preschool education. Schools are ineligible to participate, however, if they prioritize the admission of families who share their faith or have religious expectations of their teachers.
Both stipulations are obviously essential components of faith-based education. Yet the Colorado law would unfairly force religious parents to choose between paying out of pocket for the cost of faith-based preschool or receiving a free preschool education at any secular private school. The law amounts to a legislated burden on the state’s millions of religious families and their free exercise of religion. The lawsuit, St. Mary Catholic Parish v. Roy, could be taken as a hopeful response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent receptivity to religious liberty arguments.
This lawsuit has some wind at its back, coming on the heels of successful litigation challenging similarly restrictive laws in other states.
In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Carson v. Makin that parents who wish to send their children to religious schools in Maine have the right to enjoy the same access to state-sponsored tuition assistance programs as parents sending their children to secular private schools.
Maine had defended its exclusion of religious schools by claiming it did not discriminate against religious schools per se, only schools with “sectarian” religious teachings and practices. The Court saw through Maine’s illogical standard – that a school could be Catholic in name but could not hold a Bible class or administer communion.
In 2017 in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., v. Comer, the Court struck down a Missouri program that excluded religious organizations from a grant for nonprofits that installed cushioning playground surfaces made from recycled rubber tires. In 2020, in Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, the Supreme Court held that the Montana Constitution’s “no-aid” provision to a state program providing tuition assistance to parents discriminated against religious schools and families.
Despite a clear line of Court precedent invalidating restrictions on religious schools, state governments continue to plug their ears to Court rulings.
Earlier this year, a lawsuit in California had to be filed challenging a state law that prohibits federal and state special education funding for disabled children at religious private schools while allowing it for secular private schools. The case, Loffman v. California Department of Education, seeks to argue that such a restriction is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
And in Minnesota, the state legislature recently passed a bill banning Christian colleges and universities from participating in the state’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. The program allows high school students to earn college credit at the institution of their choice. The law effectively bans some of the largest providers which account for over 20 percent of PSEO enrollment hours.
Why does the Court have to further reiterate its position that restrictions on religious education providers or religious families will not be tolerated? Protect The 1st looks forward to the day when the Court’s rulings will be heard and respected in the states.
“Their Faith Is Not Supportive”
The latest insult to religious liberty comes from a case in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where state agencies have determined that devout religious families should not foster children. The state upholds this position despite an ongoing foster care crisis resulting in more than 1,500 vulnerable minors living unplaced, often in state agencies and even in hospital rooms for indeterminate periods.
By all accounts, Mike and Kitty Burke are an upstanding couple. Mike is an Iraq war veteran and Kitty has worked with special-needs children. Both are practicing Catholics, regularly attend church and perform as musicians during services. The pair long wanted to be parents but, like so many others, found themselves unable to conceive. Willing to open their home to children of all racial backgrounds and needs, they contacted the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to begin the foster parent application process.
In October 2022, the Burkes underwent home interviews – a standard procedure in which a License and Training Social Worker assesses whether a family can provide “loving child-specific environments while helping to facilitate permanency for the child through reunification or adoption.” In these circumstances, a social worker subjectively evaluates a prospective parent’s fitness based on DCF’s “Standards for Licensure as a Foster/Pre-adoptive Parent.” Following that assessment, a License Review Team makes a final licensure decision based on its own understanding of a family’s fitness.
According to court documents, the Burkes’ interview focused disproportionately on their religious beliefs about gender and sexuality. The couple made it clear – they would love and support a child under their care regardless of that child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. They also maintained they would continue to uphold their personal beliefs on marriage and sexuality as traditionally understood by the Catholic Church.
Their response apparently didn’t satisfy the social worker. As she wrote in her report, “their faith is not supportive and neither are they.” The DCF subsequently denied the Burkes’ application, destroying the couple’s hopes of becoming foster parents and helping children who desperately need a home instead of a hospital bed.
Such pointless government attacks on conventional religions are increasingly common.
These attacks continue despite the fact that the underlying issue is well-trodden ground in the courts.
As recently as 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Catholic charities cannot be excluded from state foster care systems on the basis of their beliefs. Massachusetts’ Foster Parent Bill of Rights prohibits the denial of prospective foster families on the basis of religion (protecting “prospective foster … parents during the application process” from discrimination “on the basis of religion”) – as do DCF’s own policies.
Yet, the agency’s requirement that foster parents support and respect “a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity” has now been interpreted as an immutable ban against any religious person who holds traditional beliefs – be they Muslim, Orthodox Jew, Catholic, or Protestant – from becoming a foster parent. It’s a clear-cut violation of the Free Exercise Clause as well as First Amendment prohibitions against compelled speech.
DCF’s social workers are free to have their own preferred views on gender and sexuality. They are free to place children in homes with parents with more progressive views. But they are constitutionally and statutorily prohibited from requiring people of faith to choose between violating their beliefs or losing access to a program to do good.
At public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, parents and students can opt out of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and even birthday celebrations based on religious grounds. What they cannot opt out of is instruction in queer and transgender ideology, even if their First Amendment-protected, faith-based beliefs run contrary to progressive mores.
In the fall of 2022, following the results of an “Antiracist System Audit” commissioned the prior year, the Montgomery County Board of Education introduced 22 new “LGBTQ+-inclusive texts” for use in pre-K through eighth grade classrooms.
One book approved for four-year-olds is Pride Puppy, a Where’s Waldo?-esque puzzle book that encourages children to search for images of drag queens, leather, lip rings and underwear based on letters of the alphabet. Other approved works focus on gender transition and same-sex infatuation. Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope, which is approved for fifth graders, and emphasizes a child’s agency in the decision to transition, arguing that such choices don’t have to “make sense.”
In the State of Maryland, instruction on family life and sex education requires parental notification and the ability to opt out. It’s the same story across 32 other states that either require an opt-out plan or an affirmative decision to opt into such teachings.
The Montgomery County School Board’s own guidelines require the same, even allowing for “excus[ing] students who do not want to participate” in “activities” that “may be viewed by others as having religious overtones,” including “birthdays or other occasions that many may consider to be secular, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day.”
At first, following introduction of the new curriculum, requests to opt out were honored. Then, the Board issued a statement changing course:
“[T]here is as an expectation that teachers utilize these inclusive lessons and texts with all students. ... Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than ‘Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction’ which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.”
Just like that, every parent of a school-aged child in Montgomery County was denied the right to decide for themselves when to introduce their children to issues of gender and sexuality. There are more than 70,000 school-aged children in Montgomery County.
Concerned parents have since organized under the banner of Kids First. A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland (Mahmoud v. McKnight) on behalf of that association – as well as individual parents of varying religious backgrounds – alleges violations of Maryland state law, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and of substantive due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to reinstate the opt-out plan.
At Protect The 1st, we believe that it is the mission of schools to educate children, but it is the job of parents to raise them. Progressive parents who want to teach their children these perspectives are free to do so. But forcing this curriculum on families shows blatant disrespect for pluralism and the role of religion in many families.
This case is particularly salient because it involves plaintiffs of diverse religious beliefs united under a common cause. Too often, such controversies are seen by the media through the lens of conservative Christianity, when it’s also the case that Muslims and those of other religious backgrounds often hold conservative, faith-based views on gender and sexuality.
As for the merits of the case, Maryland law plainly states that “The local school system shall provide an opportunity for parents/guardians to view instructional materials to be used in the teaching of family life and human sexuality objectives.” It further requires “policies, guidelines, and/or procedures for student opt-out regarding instruction related to family life and human sexuality objectives.”
The Board’s interpretation that these books don’t implicate family life and human sexuality is plainly preposterous – just as one board member’s contention that religious belief fosters hate is patently offensive.
What’s more, long-standing precedent recognizes “the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children.” A critical case is Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that an Amish family’s right to the free exercise of religion outweighed Wisconsin’s interest in compelling school attendance beyond eighth grade. Specifically, that case noted that schools are not “empowered ... to ‘save’ a child from himself or his [religious] parents” by imposing “compulsory” education to “influence ... the religious future of the child.”
Such precedent tells us that the Montgomery County School Board’s position is unlikely to survive a strict scrutiny analysis. We also know that schools do best when they focus on quality instruction on primary subjects and skills.
Leave the values to parents.
While school choice has been advancing steadily across the country, sometimes progress can be two steps forward, one step back. This week, the Wall Street Journal editorial board penned an article calling attention to the stunning success of political efforts to enshrine school choice in the state of Ohio. Where Pennsylvania recently backed down on a school voucher proposal, Ohio has just opened a state voucher program to all families.
Under Ohio’s pre-existing EdChoice Scholarship Program, families earning under 250% of the federal poverty level were eligible to receive K-12 school vouchers. The program was also offered to families with students attending the state’s worst-performing schools; however, the recent legislation has expanded the eligibility for vouchers to all families, irrespective of income or school attendance. K-8 students will be eligible to receive scholarships totaling $6,165 which rises to $8,407 for high school students. According to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, this change will make over 90,000 students currently attending private schools without a scholarship eligible for the program.
The picture is just as rosy for the state’s charter schools. Charters will receive about a 12% increase in state funding and $1,000 per student in facilities funding. High-performing charters, which receive extra financial benefits, could receive around a 40% boost in funding, bringing them nearly on par with the resources provided to the state’s public schools.
We are pleased by Ohio's bold step forward in providing resources to the state's private schools. With the expansion of the voucher program and increased funding for charter schools, Ohio is solidifying its commitment to school choice and creating more opportunities for families to access quality education options. It serves as a striking contrast to Pennsylvania's recent setback in pursuing school voucher initiatives, where Ohio has chosen to support educational freedom and empower parents in their children's education.
Mesha Mainor is a lawmaker in the Georgia House who represents a heavily Democratic Atlanta district in which some schools have 3 percent proficiency rates, and many children are utterly innumerate. Disgusted by the inferior performance of public schools, Rep. Mainor gave her support to the growing movement for school choice.
“When I decided to stand up on behalf of disadvantaged children in support of school choice, my Democrat colleagues didn’t stand by me,” Rep. Mainor said. “They crucified me.”
In her words, she was “voting yes for parents and yes for children, not failing schools.” After her rough treatment, Mainor switched parties and registered as a Republican.
“There is no good reason for officeholders to treat school choice as a partisan issue,” said Rick Boucher, former Democratic congressman from Virginia and Protect The 1st Senior Policy Advisor. “A RealClear Opinion Research poll found that support for school choice among Democrats rose from 59 percent to 68 percent between 2020 and 2022. In fact, support for school choice among Democrats exceeds that of independents by one point.
“Millions of parents see school choice as a lifeline out of poverty,” Boucher said. “The commitment of Democrats to equality, opportunity, and pluralism should make school choice our issue.”
The resignation of Rep. Mainor from the Democratic party is just the latest sign that school choice has hardened into a partisan dividing line. Democratic supporters of school choice were initially elated when governors of two major blue states – Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania – endorsed modest school choice programs in their states.
But this Democratic school choice moment did not last.
After the ultra-powerful teacher’s union went to work on the governors, both soon backtracked on the bold stands they had taken while running for office. Gov. Pritzker acquiesced to the elimination of a state tax credit for private donations that sent 9,600 low-income students to quality private schools. Now the governor is talking about ways to “wind down” the program as these children return to subpar public schools.
Gov. Shapiro boldly declared he stood by school choice because “every child of God” deserves a “quality education.” Yet Gov. Shapiro similarly backed down from his support for a $100 million scholarship plan for children trapped in the state’s lowest-performing public schools. Now these children of God will be returned to schools with abysmal track records.
“It is easy to understand what Govs. Pritzker and Shapiro were seeing on the stump,” Boucher said. “School choice is immensely popular with Democrats, especially among disadvantaged and minority communities. Given our party’s legacy of support for families and children, we should show that in our party, children from struggling families come first.”
State by State, School Choice Movement Sweeps – and Falters
What’s behind the mushrooming success of the school choice movement? Why is school choice spreading like a prairie fire, from Oklahoma’s recent refundable school tuition tax credit, to major expansions in recent years from Florida to Utah, from Arizona to West Virginia?
This movement is fueled by a desire to bring competition to the often disappointing – and in some cities, alarmingly bad – performance of public school systems. But something else is also at play: school choice fulfills the guarantees and values of the First Amendment writ across generations. From coast to coast, parents are expressing their desire to transmit their values and beliefs through the choice of state-accredited private schools.
But with success comes inevitable pushback and disappointment.
Protect The 1st praised Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois during the election season last year for supporting “The Invest in Kids Act,” which provides a tax credit for thousands of children to avoid public schools with decades-long records of failure. But the goal of a viable state-supported choice alternative for Illinois families has yet to be realized. Under political pressure from the teachers union, and unfounded fears public schools would be short-changed, the Illinois legislature killed the program – consigning thousands of children to return to dysfunctional public schools.
Protect The 1st also had high hopes for Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott pushed the legislature in Austin to pass a statewide school choice bill. Conservative Republicans in the Texas House, however, killed the measure out of fear that a school choice program would divert funds away from rural public schools.
Such fears about school choice are unfounded.
School choice doesn’t degrade public schools – it improves them. Randomized control trials of voucher programs found moderate evidence of improvement in academic achievement from private school vouchers – a welcome result given America’s persistently mediocre place in international school rankings. Moreover, out of 28 studies that explored the causal relationship between school choice and the performance of public schools, 25 found that school choice improves educational attainment in traditional school systems.
“In terms of social-scientific validity, that’s a slam dunk,” writes Alexander William Salter, economist at Texas Tech University.
What about Republicans’ fears about the impact of school choice on rural schools?
States like Arizona and Florida that have expansive school choice policies have witnessed an increase both in rural private-school enrollment and public-school performance. Since the enactment of state school choice policies, Arizona’s rural schools have increased performance in students’ fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores, while the performance of rural schools nationwide has declined.
The critical role school choice can have in young lives explains why Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) called school choice a “civil rights issue.” And it explains the brave stand of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania who said he is open to school choice because:
I believe every child of God deserves a shot here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is making sure every child has a quality education.
U.S. Ed Dept Balances First Amendment Principles in Revised Guidance on Prayer, Religious Activity in Schools
The founders left us with a balancing act on religion: the First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, but forbids the government establishment of one. On the whole, an updated policy from the Biden Administration’s Department of Education does a good job of explaining – and promoting – that balance in its new guidance for state and local education agencies on what is, and what is not, permitted in prayer and religious expression in elementary to secondary schools.
Comparing the additions and deletions of this policy from the Trump administration’s version reveals – as one might expect from a left of center administration – added emphasis on the “no establishment” clause. But the new policy contains no shocking departures from traditional constitutional protections. Instead, it doubles down on the distinction between religious expression that is government-sponsored, and that which is privately expressed.
After noting Supreme Court jurisprudence that “it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people,” the updated policy declares that “nothing in the First Amendment, however, converts the public schools into religion-free zones, or requires students, teachers, or other school officials to leave their private expression at the schoolhouse door.”
Somewhat defensively, the policy notes that the “principles outlined in this updated guidance are similar” to the 2020 guidance. The new policy clearly responds to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kennedy v. Bremerton School District opinion (2022), aka “the praying coach case,” in which the Court upheld the right of a coach to pray on a football field after a game.
It cautions that schools have some right to discipline a schoolteacher, coach, or other employee for improper speech. It particularly empowers schools to discipline teachers who “pressure or encourage” students to join private prayer. “However,” the policy adds, “not everything that a public-school teacher, coach or other official says in the workplace constitutes governmental speech, and schools have less leeway to regulate employees’ genuinely private expression.”
The new policy upholds the right of teachers and other school employees to meet for prayer before school or during breaks. It upholds the central place religion has held in music, history, and literature. It allows philosophical questions concerning religion, the history of religion, comparative religion, religious texts as literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States. It recognizes that much classical music has religious themes, which is no bar to the classics being played or sung by students.
The updated policy affirms the right of students to “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious perspective of their submissions.”
Most commendably, the policy calls for the teaching of these twin First Amendment principles as an “opportunity to assist America’s youth in developing an understanding of these constitutional protections as they apply to people of all faiths and no faith and an appreciation for the core American values and freedoms that undergird them.”
In an age of culture wars, it is refreshing to see a policy from a Republican administration revised by a Democratic administration with stronger emphasis – as you would expect -- on government neutrality, while maintaining the enduring respect for religious freedom rooted in the U.S. Constitution.
In the latest example of government targeting religion, the Minnesota Legislature recently passed a bill banning Christian colleges and universities from participating in the state’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program – which allows high school students to earn college credit at the institution of their choice.
The move is brazenly unconstitutional. It also deprives the state of some of its largest PSEO providers, while also preventing thousands of high-school aged young people from attending schools that align with their faith.
Minnesota’s PSEO program is designed to allow 10th, 11th, and 12th-grade students to earn college credit tuition free while still in high school. Two of its prominent providers are Crown College and the University of Northwestern-St. Paul. In 2020, Crown provided nearly 4,400 credit hours to PSEO students. That same year, Northwestern provided almost 25,000 – roughly 15 percent of the state’s total PSEO student hours.
What do these two schools have in common? Both are Christian institutions requiring a statement of faith from prospective on-campus students – and both are now expressly banned from participating in the PSEO program.
This new law is a wide-ranging education bill which, among other things, revises the criteria for eligible PSEO institutions to explicitly exclude religious institutions. The bill states: “An eligible institution must not require a faith statement from a secondary student seeking to enroll in a postsecondary course under this section during the application process or base any part of the admission decision on a student's race, creed, ethnicity, disability, gender, or sexual orientation or religious beliefs or affiliations.” (Emphasis added.)
The legislative history plainly demonstrates that legislators knew that Crown and Northwestern would be affected by the changes, with the bill’s sponsor acknowledging an intent to coerce such institutions into admitting students regardless of their beliefs.
For an entertaining view of legislative sharp elbows within the constraints of Minnesota nice (see the 3:09 mark), listen to Rep. Ben Bakeburg discuss the “targeting of people of faith,” and Rep. Harry Niska put the amendment’s author, Rep. Laurie Pryor, on the spot about whether she intends to exclude religious schools or force them to change their doctrine.
As Rep. Niska amply demonstrated, by excluding religious institutions from public benefits widely available to private secular institutions, this bill runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, (2017), which held that such discrimination is “odious to our Constitution . . . and cannot stand.” Rep. Niska also pointed out in Carson v. Makin that the Supreme Court held that religious schools in Maine could not be excluded from a state school choice program on the basis of their religious beliefs.
A second, more practical, problem is that Minnesota’s actions disenfranchise students wishing to attend Crown and Northwestern, the latter being the largest provider of PSEO services. Northwestern has already admitted 183 on-campus PSEO students for the 2023-2024 school year. As Becket Fund senior counsel Diana Thomson aptly put it, “Minnesota politicians just slammed the door on thousands of kids in their state who want to get a head start on college, all because the schools they want to attend share their religious beliefs.”
Two families affected by the Legislature’s decision – as well as both Crown and Northwestern – have filed suit against the state asking for injunctive relief and a determination that the new law violates the Constitution and Minnesota law, enshrining the right to the free exercise of religion.
Any law infringing on a fundamental Constitutional right must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest. Protect The 1st will be watching this case closely as it progresses.
In a striking win for advocates of religious freedom (i.e. the vast majority of Americans), Arizona’s Washington Elementary School District agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Arizona Christian University (ACU) alleging religious discrimination in contravention of the U.S. Constitution and established state law. The settlement walks back the district’s February decision to exclude ACU student teachers from public school classrooms based on the university’s “Statement of Faith” and its traditional, Christian religious beliefs.
For the 11 years preceding the school board’s decision, ACU enjoyed a harmonious and productive relationship with the district, with dozens of its students assisting in the district’s elementary schools as part of the university’s student teaching and practicum requirements. According to the complaint filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of ACU, at least 17 of those students went on to be hired as full-time employees. In no instance was there ever any allegation by the district about improper behavior by ACU students, who are required by the Arizona Christian Student Teaching Handbook to “[a]bide by the rules and policies of the assigned school.”
That didn’t stop the school board from terminating the longstanding operating agreement between ACU on Feb. 23 after one member brought up concerns about certain language contained in ACU’s mission statement demonstrating the university’s commitment to “biblically informed values that are foundational to Western civilization, including […] the centrality of family [and the] traditional morality and lifelong marriages between one man and one woman.”
Following a period of discussion, the board voted unanimously to end the agreement with ACU, causing significant harm to university students in the process of completing their teaching requirements – and doing so solely on the basis of their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.
As we noted, many religions and denominations hold beliefs similar to those of ACU. Were a court to uphold the school board’s decision, it would open the floodgates to widespread government discrimination against practicing members of many religions, including Orthodox Jewish and Muslim teachers, as well as those who are Roman Catholic.
Instead, this settlement reflects a positive development in the ongoing and seemingly ceaseless fight to defend the free exercise of religion. The school board’s commendable willingness to reverse itself is emblematic of a growing recognition that quality education is commonplace at religious institutions, even if some may disagree with those institutions doctrines and beliefs.
So long as good teachers don’t bring their faith into the secular, public classroom, there should be no need to further litigate this issue in a courtroom.
“On a Greased Slide to the Supreme Court”
St. Isidore, early medieval Bishop of Seville, is venerated as a doctor of the church for writing extracts from ancient literature that preserved classical wisdom. For this reason, Pope John Paul II established St. Isidore as the patron saint of internet users. In the 21st century, because of a dramatic development in Oklahoma on Monday, St. Isidore is now almost certainly destined to also become known as the name of a major, future U.S. Supreme Court opinion.
This is because Oklahoma has become the first state in the union to explicitly approve a religious charter school, the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, to be run by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma and Diocese of Tulsa. Until now, private religious schools have been eligible to participate in some publicly funded programs – Hasidic schools in New York receive some public funds while charging tuition, for example – but St. Isidore will be the first religious charter school fully paid for by taxpayers.
No sooner did an Oklahoma state board approve St. Isidore for funding than the Americans United for Separation of Church and State signaled it was preparing a lawsuit.
“This case is on a greased slide toward the Supreme Court,” said Gene Schaerr, Protect The 1st general counsel. “It will establish once and for all whether religious schools can be lawfully excluded from charter funding. Recent Court reasoning, from Trinity Lutheran v. Comer to Carson v. Makin, strongly suggests that discrimination against religious charter schools will soon be relegated to the proverbial ash heap of history.”
When private and religious schools meet their state’s stringent educational standards, they frequently offer an educational experience superior in quality to public schools and provide a way for parents to express their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, extending their faith’s tradition, while knowing their children will be educated in math, science, English, and history. This is why Protect The 1st sees school choice as empowering parents and strengthening both education and a First Amendment society.
States are warming up to this view, though two states are wavering because of strong opposition from politicians in both parties.
North Carolina has recently become embroiled in a bitter political fight over school choice between that state’s governor and the general assembly. The governor has declared his opposition to school choice legislation recently passed by the legislature. If the measure is sent to the governor’s desk as a standalone bill, it appears the legislature has the upper hand with a veto-proof majority.
In Texas, there are fewer political fireworks, but a handful of rural Republican legislators have nevertheless so far managed to keep school choice from happening in the Lone Star State. Economist Stephen Moore recently noted that the districts these recalcitrant Republican legislators represent have abysmal levels of student performance at or above grade level. Moreover, the Texas school choice bill would direct more dollars per student for rural districts.
On the plus side, when Gov. Kevin Stitt signs school choice into law, Oklahoma will have a refundable tax credit for families to put toward private school tuition. This new law, the Oklahoma Parental Choice Act, will also have a common feature of recent school choice bills – it boosts spending for public schools and teacher pay.
“We’re excited for what it does for every student, every teacher and school and parent in the state, regardless of what their personal choice is in terms of educating that child,” House Speaker Charles McCall told local media.
This year has seen enactments of major expansions of school choice in Indiana (available to 97 percent of K-12 students), Montana, and South Carolina. Four states – Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Utah – enacted school choice programs open to all K-12 students, following the trailblazing path of Arizona and West Virginia.
These states include language ensuring that private schools must meet state minimum education standards to be eligible to receive funding. Such a move ensures that states can chart their own course with respect to curricular standards that private schools must meet to receive state support, while also providing students and families the resources they need to obtain a quality education.
The ability to educate one’s children in the best schools available and according to one’s values or religion should be afforded to every American family. Since funding will now be opened up to a broader array of private schools, many more parents won’t have to choose between sacrificing educational quality for their children or sacrificing their family savings.
Perhaps Oklahoma’s addition to the national school choice juggernaut will prompt North Carolina and Texas to overcome political opposition to join a movement that is sweeping the nation.
Rick Boucher and Bob Goodlatte, former Members of Congress and now Senior Policy Advisors to Protect The 1st, detail the school choice revolution sweeping the country. States are adopting universal school choice – protecting the 1st Amendment right of parents to choose the most appropriate school for their children.
Rep. Aaron Bean (R-FL), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, presided over a hearing Tuesday in which witnesses appealed to the heart as well as the head in making a persuasive case for school choice and the Educational Choice Act for Children.
This latter is a bill, now before the House, that would amend the IRS code to allow tax credits for donations to create a national, $10 billion fund for private school scholarships for elementary and secondary school students. Supporters and opponents all agreed that the bill would provide a workaround on school choice for states in which the expansion of private options for children are stymied by local political forces.
Witnesses testified there is solid evidence school choice has positive effects on civic engagement, crime reduction, and student safety. Not only do students in school choice do better academically, but many studies show the competition provided by school choice has a beneficial effect on public school performance.
Protect The 1st supports school choice not just because of the demonstrated superiority of many private schools, but also because school choice enables parents to enjoy the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. It does this by allowing them to send their children to a school that reflects their heritage and foundational beliefs. In Tuesday’s hearing, it was noted that if all U.S. Catholic schools were a state, their 1.6 million students would rank first in the nation across the NAEP reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders.
But in this hearing, policy points were overwhelmed by personal stories and moral appeals.
“When a district school is failing or unsafe, school choice provides an exit option previously foreclosed to most families,” said Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. “But school choice is far more than an escape hatch; it is the mechanism that will create a rising tide that will lift all boats.”
Burke followed up on a comment made earlier by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) that money should follow students rather than schools. “Pell Grant recipients aren’t assigned to particular colleges,” she said. “Food stamp recipients aren’t assigned to the grocery store closest to their home. Yet in K-12 education, students are assigned to the district public school closest to where their parents can afford to buy a home, even if that school is a poor fit for that child.”
Asking why the future of children should be limited to their ZIP code, Rep. Burgess Owen (R-UT) said that school choice is “a civil rights issue.” He noted that 75 percent of African-American boys in California in 2017 could not pass standardized reading and writing tests. He said they are being denied the right to “read, write, think or dream.”
Rep. Owens added that “no one in this room would send their child to such [an underperforming] school,” but there is a lack empathy for families that currently have no other choice. And those that are trapped are, he said, predominately “Black, Hispanic, those who cannot defend themselves.”
Many persuasive witnesses spoke. But the show stealer was Denisha Allen of the American Federation for Children.
Growing up in a distressed neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida, Allen said: “I failed third grade – twice – because I couldn’t read. I felt so insecure. I just knew I was stupid. I was regularly humiliated by my peers because I was two years older than my classmates. Teachers sighed when I walked through the door. Unsurprisingly, I hated school.”
“To me, school was not the window to opportunity but an obligation,” she said. “I thought school was a place I had to go so my biological mother would not go to jail – because that had happened before ... It seemed that my life path would follow in the same path as many of my family members, with dropping out or worse.”
In the summer of her sixth-grade year, Allen moved in with her godmother, who applied for a Florida tax-credit scholarship to enroll in a small private church school.
“I didn’t know my life was about to change. Every day at my new school, my teachers greeted me with a smile. I felt loved and seen,” she said.
“Because I didn’t read on grade level, teachers would meet with me one-on-one to help me. They saw potential in me that I never had. My confidence grew. They didn’t view me as a chore but as a child of God – as a student capable of learning.
“I went from making Ds and Fs, believing I would become a teen mom and a high-school dropout, to making As and Bs, becoming the first in my family to graduate from high school, then undergraduate college, and grad school – earning a master’s degree and going on to work full-time in this field to ensure that as many other students as possible get this incredible opportunity.
“I wasn’t a failure. The public school system had failed me. Imagine all the students today who are like I once was – the ones who are trapped in poor-performing schools, who don’t read on grade level, are destined to drop out of school, become a teen parent, or spend the rest of their life behind bars.
“Imagine telling those beautiful faces that there was a feasible alternative, that their liberation can come in the form of education freedom – but only if their state leaders prioritized students' needs above the systems that had failed them.
“Yet in many states, the opportunity for America’s students, including its 7.7 million Black public school students, to access these potentially life-changing learning options remains out of reach,” Allen said. “The sad reality is students in many states will never access this type of life-changing opportunity unless Congress acts. There are many proposals to provide more options to parents – like the Education Choice for Children Act – it would allow parents to have education freedom now more than ever.”
Watch the whole hearing here, with Denisha Allen at the 40-minute mark.
In a system in which the government provides for public libraries, the selection and weeding of available books will never be free of politics. In the scenic Texas Hill country, the commissioners of Llano County replaced its library board in 2021 and asked the newbies to do a content review of all books in its three branches.
Twelve books, all for children and young adults, were selected for removal. They include Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabell Wilkerson, They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings, and Gary the Goose Has Gas on the Loose.
When these books were removed, seven residents sued claiming that their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendment were violated. On March 30, federal Judge Robert Pitman in a preliminary injunction ordered the Llano County Library System to return the books and not remove any more. He indicated that the removals and close content regulation would not likely pass constitutional muster.
The commission responded by debating the closure of Llano County’s entire library system.
Reasonable objections to ideological extremes can sometimes veer into political frenzy. Llano County, a popular place in deer hunting season, has yet to make it on the map as a hotbed of 1619 activism and Frankfurt School cultural Marxism. As a native Texan named Laura Bush said, “I have found that the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.” To be fair, some books are too obscene or deranged to belong in a public library. It would be a shame, however, to pulverize a center of learning out of pique at a judge and a moral panic over a flatulent goose.
California’s “Special Kind of Chutzpah”
A new lawsuit in California challenges a state policy that bars religious parents and schools from using special education funding to serve children with disabilities. Jewish parents and schools filed Loffman v. California Department of Education, claiming the California policy violates their 1st and 14th Amendment rights by prohibiting federal and state special education funding for disabled children at religious private schools while allowing it for secular private schools.
This funding originates with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law ensuring that all children with disabilities in America can receive a free appropriate public education that meets their needs. However, the California legislature allows only secular private schools to participate in this benefits program and has categorically excluded religious schools from participation.
Eric Rassbach, Vice President and Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, which represents the plaintiffs, said: “It takes a special kind of chutzpah to deny Jewish kids with disabilities equal access to special education benefits.” In a Twitter thread, Rassbach pointed out that a majority of Californians would like to see funding for students with disabilities opened up to non-secular schools.
The suit cites Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a landmark case that struck down a similar restriction. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that restrictions in government programs for no other reason than the fact that they are religious are “odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”
In Carson v. Makin, the Court struck down a Maine law that, like the California law, would allow private secular schools and families to access public funding but exclude religious schools and families. Carson builds on a long line of cases holding that religious people cannot be excluded from government benefits programs solely on the basis of their religion.
PT1st supported the plaintiffs in Carson v. Makin, in which the Court ruled 6-3 to uphold the rights of religious families. We wrote: “With a solid win for religious liberty in Carson v. Makin, we can expect future cases will explore the freedom of publicly funded religious charter schools to include religious instruction.” Should Loffman make it before the U.S. Supreme Court, it seems likely that the Court will strike down the California restriction.
We supports the plaintiffs and the Becket fund in their efforts to ensure all students with disabilities in California can receive a quality education in line with their academic needs and religious heritage. The California legislature, by restricting resources, forces parents with a disabled child to violate their religious conscience, leaving them with inadequate options for their child’s education. We look forward to further developments in this case.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed into law a measure that expands that state’s educational tax credit for parents to send their children to private schools. Educational savings accounts will now be available to any Florida family with children eligible to enroll in a K-12 school.
“We fundamentally believe the money should follow the student and be directed on what the parent thinks is the most appropriate education program for their child,” Gov. DeSantis said.
To underscore this last point – that the right to educate children is a powerful enabler of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion – Gov. DeSantis held the signing ceremony at the Christopher Columbus High school, a Catholic school in Miami run by the Marist Brothers. As he signed the bill into law, the governor was surrounded by students from that school and from the St. Brendan Elementary school next door.
One Catholic organization responded that the new law makes Florida “arguably the best state for educational freedom in the country.”
Private schools frequently offer a superior learning experience compared with the public education system. National polls show a strong preference among parents for private education, including charter schools, private academies, and religious schools.
Moreover, religious schools give parents the option of educating their children in the faith tradition of their choosing, while meeting rigorous state standards for required courses. In many cases charter schools, private academies, and religious schools greatly outperform public schools. The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that if a student disenrolls in a public school, it does not lose any of its local funding or supplementary state funding that is not tied to enrollment.
Florida follows on the heels of Arkansas, which became the fifth state in two years to pass universal school choice, often with bipartisan support. Democratic governors of Illinois and Pennsylvania have moved to expand access to private scholarship options.
Attention now turns to Texas, which has no single widespread voucher or education savings account program. This is likely to change, as the rising number of school choice states is inspiring Texas legislators to craft proposals to widen options available to parents.
Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth urged the Texas legislature and governor to pass school choice legislation for Lone Star families. Bishop Olson, in describing school choice as a top priority of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, quoted Pope Paul VI: “Parents, who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.”
The school choice movement has achieved liftoff.
It took decades to get to this point. The school choice movement, supported by parents and reform-minded educators, for years crept along state by state, incremental program by program. Thirty-one states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have adopted school choice programs that grant educational savings accounts, tax credits, and vouchers. But the rights of parents to choose the best and most appropriate school for their children has often been a bit player, tolerated but not celebrated. School choice has been more of an educational outlier than a paradigm shift.
Protect The 1st is convinced the school choice movement is vital to the future of American children and society. Decades of research show that choice brings powerful improvements to educational outcomes and to children’s lives. The First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion must also include room for parents to choose schools that reflect their beliefs, while adhering to state standards in learning.
In 2021, a year supporters deemed “The Year of Educational Choice,” saw 19 states enact 32 new or expanded school choice programs. In that year, West Virginia became the first state to enact a publicly-funded choice program for all students. The following year, Arizona followed suit. In 2023, momentum is building into a breakout year. The adoption of school choice polices in one state is spurring other states to adopt or expand school choice policies.
Last week, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a school-choice bill that made Arkansas the fifth state in two years to pass universal school choice, following the most recent examples of Iowa and Utah. Last week as well, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature advanced a bill to establish tax credits to encourage donations to private-school scholarships for students in need.
From Florida, to Idaho, to Utah, parents and policymakers are embracing choice as the means to give children access to better schools while challenging traditional public schools to do a better job of educating children.
The obvious need and success of school choice is based on growing bipartisan support. The Nebraska bill advanced with the support of three Democratic state senators. It is no surprise that 82 percent of Republicans support school choice, but 68 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents support school choice as well. Protect The 1st applauded Democratic leaders in Illinois and Pennsylvania for committing to expand private scholarship programs. We look forward to more action by leaders in both parties in states and cities across the country.
The movement and the moment have come together. The school choice movement is finally fast on the move.