Supreme Court should give parents more education and religious freedom

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Parents across America are losing faith in the public school system. If you do a quick web search for “public school is declining enrollment” you will see what I mean.

From Boston to the Twin Cities to Seattle, public school systems are rapidly losing students. This is not the case with the flute player; the children have not disappeared. They simply moved to greener pastures: public charter schools, private schools and homeschool.

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A classroom inside Andrew Hamilton Public School in Philadelphia. Leaked documents show students are learning more about George Floyd and a “pyramid of hate.”
(The Philadelphia School District)

The coronavirus pandemic was not the start of this nationwide trend, but it has been an accelerator. As public schools across the country closed their doors, exiling students (and their parents) to the arid desert of digital school, private schools often managed to stay open. The teachers and administrators of these schools were flexible, innovative and determined to keep their students in the classroom, and they did so without becoming “super spreaders”.

Children in private schools, including private religious schools, continued to lead relatively normal lives throughout this pandemic. I know this is true because my family experienced it.

If this pandemic has shown anything to parents, it is the importance of the quality of their children’s education – and education in our country is anything but uniform. The checkered nature of the public school system means that for many children, especially those in low-income or rural areas, their educational prospects are bleak.

This is especially true when schools move away from face-to-face teaching for distance learning. It’s no wonder that alternatives like home schooling, charter schools, and religious schools are winning students while public schools are losing them – they give children a fighting chance.

A "firm" sign outside a public elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March 2020. Michigan has closed all schools in a bid to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A “closed” sign outside a public elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March 2020. Michigan has closed all schools in a bid to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus.
(iStock)

The Supreme Court now has the ability to strengthen educational options for parents. In rural Maine, public high schools are scarce. The state provides tuition assistance for students attending private schools. But there is a catch: anyone who decides to attend a private religious school is immediately excluded from access to this aid.

What does it mean? This means that a child in Maine can receive state funds to help pay for their tuition at elite Connecticut schools like Miss Porter’s or the Taft School, but not for a local Catholic school. Families in Maine have taken their cases to the Supreme Court.

A police officer patrols the United States Supreme Court in Washington on October 12, 2021.

A police officer patrols the United States Supreme Court in Washington on October 12, 2021.
(Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If the situation in Maine seems unfair and discriminatory, it is because it is. In the 19th century, at the height of anti-Catholic sentiment, many states passed anti-religious laws designed to prevent children in Catholic schools from accessing state funds while public schools remained Protestant. Today, these types of laws affect families of many faiths (and none) who are simply looking for a decent alternative to their failing local public schools.

Many of these families chose Catholic schools, some because of their religious mission and others because the schools are reliable and affordable. There are nearly 2 million students in Catholic schools across the country, and the Catholic Church subsidizes the cost of education for all. Of these, 40 percent live in the city center and 20 percent are minorities. Many of them are not even Catholics. Basically, Catholic education is meant to be accessible to everyone, but especially to those who live in inner city inner city and rural areas.

Joseph G. Allen thinks masks work, but are not necessary for children.

Joseph G. Allen thinks masks work, but are not necessary for children.
(Allison Dinner / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We are not living in the 1800s. It is 2021 and Americans want schools and religious organizations to be treated fairly.

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A new report recently released by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty shows that 56% of Americans believe that religious schools and the students who attend them should be eligible for public programs that provide financial aid, even if these students and schools engage in religious activities. (It also goes beyond education: 71% believe that religious organizations that serve the community should be just as eligible for government funds as non-religious organizations).

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Catholic schools exist in part to serve the very students for whom state programs like Maine’s were designed. If the goal is the education of future generations, the government should be keen to partner with religious schools, especially given how they performed during the pandemic compared to public schools. It is time for state governments to recognize what families want for their children and do something about it. I know where the state of Maine might start.


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