The Educational Choice for Children Act is a House-Senate bill that aims to provide tax credits for charitable donations to expand choices in quality education. The legislation, introduced by Sens. Cassidy, Scott, Daines, and Young, and Reps. Owens and Smith, would allow individuals and businesses to receive tax credits for donations to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that provide scholarships to eligible students for attending private or religious schools, homeschooling, or other non-public educational options.
The bill’s supporters make the point that private options are often superior choices over available public schools.
“I’ve always said that when you give parents a choice, you give kids a better chance at achieving their dreams,” said Senator Scott. “By empowering families with more education resources, this bill could change the lives of millions of high-potential students who deserve every opportunity to succeed.”
The bill includes provisions that would allow SGOs to determine the amount of scholarship awards given to individual students. An estimated two million students in any elementary or secondary education setting, including homeschooling, would be eligible to receive scholarships that can cover tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment necessary for enrollment or attendance in non-public educational options.
The bill is supported by religious and educational organizations. Rabbi Abba Cohen of Agudath Israel of America said: “We encourage lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, to put a bipartisan stamp on the common-sense policy that is at the heart of this bill: assisting parents to access the learning environment and the educational benefits that are best suited for their children, and that will enhance educational achievement for all of America’s students. We call for its favorable consideration and passage by both House and Senate.”
The bill was also endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Like other private schools, religious schools fulfill a critical role in the education of our youth,” said Gene Schaerr, Protect the First general counsel. “Religious schools provide state-mandated instructional material while allowing parents to raise their children in accordance with their faith, a vital component of the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment. The Educational Choice for Children Act would provide parents with more educational options that are consistent with their religious beliefs.”
The pandemic and remote learning brought many surprises to Iowa parents. Parents heard lessons plans and language that sounded ideologically tinged. They objected to books for elementary school students that were sexually explicit. But local school administrators and school boards were not responsive to their complaints.
Then parents found an answer. They went to Des Moines and demanded action by state legislators and the governor – and got it – in the form of the Students First Act. This law will provide Iowa families with education savings accounts (ESAs) to put toward private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, curricular materials, and a variety of other education expenses.
Iowa’s ESAs are funded with a portion of the per-pupil spending. They are worth $7,500 a year, more than enough to cover the average Iowa private elementary school tuition of about $4,500. These ESAs come close to covering the average private high school tuition of $9,200.
Two lessons from Iowa stand out as a model for other states to pursue.
First, enacting school choice takes political savvy. According to Fox News reporting, public schools are big employers in rural areas and their administrators have big sway with their local legislators. To pass the Students First Act, Gov. Kim Reynolds had to aggressively lobby for the bill – even to the point of supporting challengers to recalcitrant incumbents.
The second lesson is that supporting widened school choice is a way for parents to address all the aspects they don’t like about public schools. Iowa’s ESAs will support quality private schools, including religious schools, which uphold state standards in education while offering parents a wider array of choices more consistent with their beliefs. And ESAs will have the added benefit, perhaps, of bringing competition that may instill reforms and improvements to public school education.
Exporting this model would work wonders. Today Iowa, maybe Illinois tomorrow?
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina a few days ago fired up a student rally for National School Choice Week, strongly stressing the value of a quality education that private school choice provides. The enthusiasm for the transformational power of education freedom was palpable among the Opportunity Scholarship students from 10 Washington, D.C. public charter and private schools.
Senator Scott himself is a testament to what an education and inspiring educators can do for students across the country. He reflected on his education growing up in a poor, single-parent household (15:00 mark): “When you’re living in poverty, you move a lot sometimes. My mother was working sixteen hours a day, trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. And it didn't always work out. We didn’t always have the lights on. You come home sometimes, you hit the switch, it didn’t work. Tough times.”
Understandably, Tim Scott struggled with school at first. He attended four elementary schools by the 4th grade. As he went from middle school to high school, “things got worse.” This future senator failed four classes in high school including, ironically, high school civics.
What turned Tim Scott’s life around was that “he had a mom who stuck with him and met a mentor that showed him the wisdom of conservative principles.” Through their belief and his own determination, Tim Scott got his grades back on track, graduated from Charleston Southern University, and eventually built his own successful small business. For millions of children today, the only way to obtain such a personal transformation is through the quality afforded by school choice.
Senator Scott said:
“I understand the value of a good education. I’ve said it several times, the closest thing to magic in America is a good education.”
We believe, as does Sen. Scott, that parents should be able to freely choose a school that fits their child’s needs and select an education that upholds their values. Therefore, Protect The 1st supports the ability of parents to choose among a variety of educational settings – including charter schools, private academies, and religious schools – so that their children can enjoy the benefits of quality education. The need for a private school choice is part of a movement that Sen. Scott identifies as the “civil rights issue of our time.”
A federal district judge in Oregon late Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of students who have soured on the religious colleges they attend (or have attended), seeking to overturn the religious exemption that Congress included in federal law to protect the right of religious colleges and universities to adhere to the tenets of their faith.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits educational programs or activities receiving federal funds from excluding, denying benefits to, or subjecting to discrimination any person on the basis of sex. Congress, however, included a narrow exception to Title IX when an educational institution “is controlled by a religious organization” holding “religious tenets.”
Forty people who applied to, attended, or currently attend religious colleges and universities filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that religious schools discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The plaintiffs alleged that the “religious exemption to Title IX exerts a chilling effect” on their free exercise of religion, speech, assembly, and association.
District Judge Ann Aiken noted that the Supreme Court has upheld the obvious principle that churches “advance religion, which is their very purpose.” Nor did Judge Aiken buy the plaintiffs’ argument that the religious exemption somehow violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The judge noted, “the text is clear that government granting exemptions does not constitute a violation …”
In short, Judge Aiken ruled “the balance of equities” fails to tip in the favor of the plaintiffs.
“This ruling is a big win for the rights of religious universities and colleges,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of Protect The 1st. “It upholds the First Amendment rights of these schools to advocate the tenets of their faiths, and to freely associate on that basis.”
Protect The 1st supports cases before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning school choice and follows political developments in favor of the millions of American parents who send their children to private schools, many of which are religious schools.
But what is driving the rising numbers of parents to send their children to private schools?
Since 2019, some two million children have exited public school for a private alternative, with another two million expected to go private by 2030. More than 3.1 million children study K-12 curricula at home, added to the millions of children in private schools.
A recent Washington Post magazine piece by John D. Harden and Steven Johnson captures the reasons why parents opt for a private school for their children, and highlights the reasons behind the decision of some parents who have chosen religious schools:
But parents also are fleeing public schools that often do an inferior job of instruction:
Parents also value the often-superior instruction of private schools, which by law must teach to the same state-mandated standards as other schools. One woman said, “I struggle with this decision because I believe I’m contributing to the failure of public schools and society, but, honestly, public education is failing anyway.”
In all our conversations and work with private schools and parents, what comes through loud and clear is a desire to have children taught specific values along with quality instruction. Protect The 1st will continue to work to protect the free exercise of school choice and the opportunity to make a religious school choice as an expression of one of the most personal decisions on how to raise children.
Protect The 1st welcomes the news that Democratic Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro added a private school choice plan, Lifeline Scholarships, to his education plan. In Illinois, where more than 7,000 students benefit from a state tax-credit scholarship program, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker reversed his opposition to this scholarship program so it will continue to provide financial support for thousands of students to attend private and parochial schools.
Shapiro and Pritzker are not alone. Today, 31 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have private school choice programs. Twenty-one states offer tax-credit programs for parents. And 45 states plus Washington, D.C., permit public charter schools.
“Governors are responding to the evidence that for millions of children, school choice is a powerful first step on the ladder to success,” said Rick Boucher, former U.S. Representative from Virginia, and Protect The 1st Senior Policy Advisor. “It is in the finest tradition of our party to provide quality education for American children across all zip codes. I am glad to see my fellow Democrats take up the mantle.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered the San Jose Unified School District to reinstate the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as a recognized student club. A tartly written concurrence by one judge vividly portrays a hostile culture of secularism that may be behind some recent overreaching official efforts to isolate students from religious observance.
The issue at hand was that FCA leaders are required to abide by a Statement of Faith, which includes the belief that sexual relations should be limited within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman. Judge Kenneth K. Lee, one of two out of three judges on the panel that decided in favor of the FCA, wrote a stinging concurrence. He vividly portrays “a stench of animus against the students’ religious beliefs” that pervades San Jose’s Pioneer High School campus.
Judge Lee describes one Pioneer high school teacher, Peter Glasser, who “channeled his inner Martin Luther, pinning the [FCA’s] Statement of Faith and Sexual Purity Statement to his classroom whiteboard along with his grievances. But instead of a reformation, Glasser demanded an inquisition. As he explained in emails sent to Principal Espiritu, FCA’s ‘bs’ views ‘have no validity’ and amount to heresy because they violated ‘my truth.’ Glasser believed ‘attacking these views is the only way to make a better campus’ and proclaimed he would not be an ‘enabler for this kind of ‘religious freedom’ anymore.”
Judge Lee then turned to the behavior of another school official.
“Michelle Bowman,” Judge Lee writes, “also serves on the Climate Committee [a body that pushed to de-recognize the FCA] and as a faculty advisor to the Satanic Temple Club. In discussing this lawsuit with a former student, she opined that ‘evangelicals, like FCA, are charlatans and not in the least bit Christian,’ and choose darkness over knowledge and perpetuate ignorance.’ But it is not for Bowman to dictate what beliefs are genuinely Christian.”
Hit with this onslaught of attacks, the FCA was derecognized in two days without giving FCA students any opportunity to defend themselves or their organization. Judge Lee goes on to describe the efforts by Glasser and others to further accuse the expelled group of creating a hostile work environment for students and faculty because of their beliefs.
“In other words,” Judge Lee wrote, “teenagers – meeting privately to discuss the Bible – were creating a hostile work environment for adult faculty, according to Glasser.”
Judge Lee concludes: “In sum, animus against the FCA students’ religious-based views infected the School District’s decision to strip the FCA of its ASB status. And that violates the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.”
Just as religion should not be taught in the classroom, it should also be free of harassment by educators and officials.
Only 29 percent of Americans trust public schools, the lowest level of support for public schools since Gallup first asked about it in 1973.
“Parents are increasingly voting with their feet,” reports Bloomberg. “Voucher programs in 15 states now use taxpayer dollars to subsidize tuition at private or religious schools. Charter schools account for almost 7 percent of overall enrollment; in Washington, D.C., 43 percent of public-school children attend one. Also, more kids are getting home schooled.”
Bloomberg cites many factors behind this shift, including mask mandates and security. One finding stood out to us: While enrollment in traditional public schools is down, alternatives are growing more popular. Magnet schools have seen 78 percent growth in school enrollment 2018 to 2020. Charter schools have seen 113 percent growth in that period. Private school enrollment is up, both for religious and sectarian schools.
Many parents of faith want schools to leave intellectual space for their children to continue the family faith tradition at home. Many parents want their children to understand the American story, warts and all, as being about painful triumphs of human rights in a democracy. Diminishing quality is a pervasive concern.
As public schools weaken substantive instruction in math, English, science and history, millions of American parents are moving their children to alternatives, from charter schools to religious schools. In doing so, they are expressing their views and thus exercising their First Amendment rights to the fullest.
Protect The 1st reported earlier this month on the signing of AB 2571 into law, which prohibits the marketing of firearms or related products in a manner that “reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.” While intended to tamp down on soaring rates of gun violence, this new law has so far curbed wholesome youth groups and sporting activities, along with freedom of expression.
Since then, multiple youth sporting organizations have had to shut their doors and scrub their websites. But the fight isn’t over for these groups. On August 24, several youth firearm sporting groups in the state of California filed a mandamus petition requesting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit immediately halt the state’s unconstitutional new gun and speech restrictions.
The petitioners are Junior Sports Magazines, Raymond Brown, the California Youth Shooting Sports Association, the Redlands California Youth Clay Shooting Sports, the California Rifle & Pistol Association, The CRPA Foundation, Gun Owners of California, and the Second Amendment Foundation.
The petition states that “if relief is not granted within the requested time, Petitioners will suffer ongoing and irreparable harm—i.e., the loss of their fundamental First and
Fourteenth Amendment rights…”
Sadly, the court denied the petition on Friday, meaning the motion for preliminary injunction cannot be heard until September 12. Despite having both their First and Second Amendment rights infringed, the Court held that Petitioners “have not demonstrated that this case warrants the intervention of this court by means of the extraordinary remedy of mandamus.”
PT1st looks forward to further developments on this case.
Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former New York City public school teacher, and Elli Lucas, research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote Monday in The Washington Examiner:
“Not only can [school] choice provide a way out for students in failing schools, but it can also enrich our nation by enhancing its vibrancy, variety, and vivacity. Our nation is better off when its schools are not a bland monoculture but rather match the varied dynamism of its people and their aspirations.”
Protect The 1st would only add that religious schools are a strong contributor of vibrancy and variety for a bland monoculture. Empowering schools that offer quality education standards while also continuing faith traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu – is a powerful use of the Free Exercise Clause to the benefit of all.