Commentary & Community

Supreme Court Rules States Can’t Discriminate Against Religious Schools

On a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that if states pay private school tuition, they cannot refuse to pay tuition at religious private schools.


In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a Montana parent who was using a state-funded scholarship program to pay for tuition at a private religious school. However, this arrangement ended when the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program violated a constitutional ban on state money going to religious schools. The parent sued, saying that this ruling violated the First Amendment by singling out religious schools for discrimination.


The Supreme Court agreed that Montana’s prohibition on state aid to private schools did indeed amount to religious discrimination. Many states have similar prohibitions, known as “Blaine Amendments.” They originated in the late 1900s, when there was growing concern about Catholic private schools. The high court held that Montana is not obligated to pay for private school tuition, but if it does it cannot allow funding to go to some private schools but not religious schools.


The four dissenting justices pointed out that the Montana Supreme Court had ended that state’s program, so it was treating all schools equally. Some also said that the court’s majority was overturning hundreds of years of precedent by allowing state money to go to religious education.


Thirty-seven states had constitutional prohibitions on government money going towards religious education that could potentially be affected by this decision.

Do you think it is constitutional for states to fund secular private schools but not religious private schools?

Education Department Suspends Standardized Tests, Postpones Loans

The federal Department of Education today announced two moves in response to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic: federal standardized test mandates will not apply this year and federal student loan borrowers will be able to postpone their payments temporarily.


Under the federal elementary and secondary education legislation, the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” schools must measure student progress in certain grades every year. This is to meet accountability measures in that law.


With schools being canceled, however, officials at the federal Department of Education decided that it made little sense to impose that requirement this year. Many states and school districts have closed schools in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Some of these closures are only scheduled to last for weeks, while others are on an indefinite break.


Higher education students who have taken federal loans will also get a break. Over the next 60 days, they can now request that their lenders postpone their payments. Everyone with a federal student loan will have their interest frozen.


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that people should not be worrying about paying student loans right now, but should be concentrating on being safe.


Do you support postponing student loan repayments during the coronavirus outbreak?

Trump Pushes for School Choice in State of the Union Speech

Proponents of school choice received a boost from President Trump during his State of the Union Address.


In his speech, the president attacked Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf for vetoing an expansion of that state’s program that gives tax credits to taxpayers who donate to school scholarships. These scholarships can be used to pay for private school tuition or other education expenses. President Trump invited a Pennsylvania student and her mother to be his guest at the speech, and he argued that Gov. Wolf was trying to deny her a better education.


President Trump used this as an example of why Congress should pass national legislation that would provide tax credits for school choice scholarships. Supporters of this idea argue that it will help students escape failing public schools. They say that children from lower-income families should have the opportunity to go to private schools just as children from higher-income families do. Opponents counter that school choice is a way to undermine public schools that are open to all children. They argue that subsidizing private school tuition would, among other things, lead to less racial integration in schools.


School choice programs have expanded at the state level over the past two decades. Besides approval of a private school subsidy program for Washington, D.C., there has been little movement on this issue at the national level, however.


It is unlikely that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would pass school choice legislation.


Do you support national legislation that would provide tax credits for taxpayers who contribute to education scholarship funds?

High Court Considers Religious School Funding

Thirty-seven states have constitutional prohibitions on government money going towards religious education. Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether those amendments are discrimination against religion or whether they are essential to preserving the separation of church and state.


The case originates in Montana, and is being brought by a parent who was using a state-funded scholarship program to pay for tuition at a private religious school. The parent’s children had suffered bullying and other problems at their public school, and so she used a state scholarship program to pay for private school.


Under Montana’s scholarship program, individuals could donate money to the fund and the state would give them a tax credit of up to $150. Parents could apply to use the money in the fund to pay for tuition at any private school in the state, including religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that this arrangement violated a constitutional ban on state money going to religious schools.


Many states have similar prohibitions, known as “Blaine Amendments.” They originated in the late 1900s, when there was growing concern about Catholic private schools. Opponents of these provisions argue that they are motivated by religious bigotry. They say that it is unconstitutional to allow funding to go to some private schools but not religious schools. There have been recent Supreme Court cases that have followed this line of reasoning in other areas, but have never directly ruled on the constitutionality of the Blaine Amendment.


Supporters of the prohibition on money going to religious schools say that taxpayer dollars should not be used to support religious education. They also argue that this will divert money from public schools, leading to worse education for the majority of students.


Do you think that states should be able to prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to religious schools?

Warren Pledges to Unilaterally Eliminate Federal Student Loan Debt

Elizabeth Warren says that American’s student debt load is a crisis, and she wants to get rid of it. She has recently said that, if elected, she plans on using her authority to start canceling student debt on her first day in office. She said that there is no need for Congress to approve such a move.


Under her plan, upon taking office she would immediately begin canceling up to $50,000 in debt for 42 million Americans. This would cover about 95% of those who have borrowed money from the federal government.


This is not new territory for Warren. She has previously announced a higher education plan that has as its centerpiece the forgiveness of student loan debt. Much of the forgiveness focuses on borrowers who have incomes under $100,000 a year. Under that proposal, however, Warren would seek legislation from Congress to eliminate debt. Her recent announcement relies upon a legal theory that the Secretary of Education already has the authority to begin such debt forgiveness.


According to Warren, this student loan debt is crushing middle class families and holding them back from achieving the American Dream. Her plan is costly, but she says she will finance it by imposing a tax on the highest income earners. Critics argue that her proposal is an expensive taxpayer giveaway to people who can afford to pay the money they borrowed, since they have an education that should lead to higher-paid work.


If Warren is elected president and attempted to eliminate these loans without congressional authorization, it is likely she would face a legal challenge.

Do you support Elizabeth Warren’s plan to end federal student debt without congressional approval?

California Will Let College Athletes Get Paid


Some student athletes bring in big money to the colleges for which they play. Now California is on the verge of letting them benefit financially from their athletic prowess.


Under a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, college athletes could receive compensation through endorsement deals, sponsorships, or autograph signings. Schools are not forced to share their sports income with these athletes, but they could no longer punish them for independent deals. However, students would be prohibited from signing a deal that conflicts with any contract signed by their schools.


The National College Athletics Association (NCAA) has long fought any attempts to give compensation to college athletes. Its stance is that these are amateur athletes, and compensation destroys that status. The organization specifically objects to the California statute, saying that it will give an unfair advantage to schools in that state when it comes to athlete recruitment. According to the NCAA, top high school athletes will want to go to California over other states since they can strike compensation deals there.


Many former student athletes have been pushing for changes to the system that bars college athletes from sharing in the money that their activity generates. They note that some sports are huge revenue generator for schools, but that the athletes playing the games do not share in the revenue. They say it is only fair for athletes to be able to make money off of their skills.


The new legislation will go into effect in 2023.


Do you think that college athletes should receive compensation?

Tuition-Free College May Be Coming to New Mexico

If you live in New Mexico and want to go to college, the state’s governor wants you to be able to do so without facing tuition payments.


Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced today that she is proposing legislation allowing state residents could attend the state’s 29 two- and four-year institutions tuition-free. This program would be open to any New Mexico resident, regardless of household income. The price tag could run between $25 and $35 million each year.


To be eligible, a student must graduate from a New Mexico high school or pass a GED test. The students must also maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college. While the program would cover college tuition, it would not pay for other educational expenses such as housing or books.


The governor and supporters of this plan tout it as a way to provide more people with the possibility of higher education. They also note that this will mean that those attending these state schools will no longer face the burdens of student debt. Opponents counter that this is a government giveaway to the wealthy, since federal Pell Grants already provide help for lower-income students to attend college.


Tuition-free higher education is something that more Democratic politicians are embracing. Many of the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination are proposing ideas that would reduce or end tuition at some colleges and universities or forgive student loan debt.


The New Mexico plan must still be approved by the state legislature to go into effect.

Do you support making public colleges and universities tuition-free?



Sanders Proposed Canceling Student Loan Debt

In his second campaign for the presidency, Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks he has an issue that will attract the votes of millennial voters – student loan debt forgiveness.


Under legislation that Sen. Sanders plans to introduce, nearly all individuals who have taken out student loans would see their debt wiped out. His plan includes:

  • Complete forgiveness of outstanding debt for any student loans made, guaranteed, or insured by the federal government;
  • Federal purchase and forgiveness of outstanding private loan debt upon application by the person who incurred the debt;
  • Providing new student loans through the federal government and capping these loans’ interest rates at 1.88%;
  • The elimination of tuition at public colleges; and
  • New subsidies for low-income students attending private colleges.


Under this plan, there would be no limits on eligibility based on family income. To pay for this $2.2 trillion plan, Sen. Sanders proposed a new tax on Wall Street transactions.


Sen. Sanders says that his plan will be Wall Street bailing out the average American. He argues that debt-free education should be something that every American is entitled to have. Opponents note that his plan would benefit the rich as well as the average American, and would be extremely expensive.


Do you think that the federal government should forgive all student loan debt, regardless of the income of the borrowers? Should public universities and colleges be tuition-free?

Biden Calls for More Federal Education Funding


Joe Biden is running for president, and he thinks that his path to the White House runs through the schoolhouse.


Speaking before the American Federation of Teachers yesterday, the former vice president laid out his education plan. The cornerstone of his proposal is a big increase in federal spending.


Currently, the federal government’s main education program is known as Title I. This sends federal money to low-income school districts. Under Biden’s plan, Title I spending would be tripled. He would earmark this money for teacher raises, pre-kindergarten expansion, and advanced courses (such as AP classes). He is also proposing more funding for school psychologists and efforts to diversify schools.


This plan represents a break from past federal education efforts, which aimed to tie funding to accountability measures. Under the Biden proposal, funds would flow regardless of test scores or other attempts to link the money to improved education outcomes.


Critics argue that this is simply a federal giveaway of taxpayer dollars without leveraging the money so states improve education. Supporters argue that poorer school districts need this money to catch up to their wealthier counterparts.


With his campaign just beginning, Biden is not proposing a bold new reform idea. Instead, he is appealing to a Democratic constituency -- teachers -- with a proposal that would provide more federal funding for them.


Do you think the federal government should increase education spending? Should federal dollars be tied to improved educational outcomes?

Armed Teachers Now Allowed in Florida

Yesterday Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation allowing school districts to arm teachers. In a state where the Parkland school shooting took place last year, this legislation has both strong supporters and detractors.


I the wake of the Parkland shooting, Florida enacted a law that allowed some school personnel to be armed. These personnel would undergo a background check and training. School boards would have to authorize this program in their district. Classroom teachers were excluded from this law.


Under this bill, school teachers would also be authorized to carry guns in the classroom. They must pass a psychological evaluation and a background check, then take training with the police.


The bill was controversial, with Republicans in the legislature pushing for it and Democrats opposing it. Those in favor of the bill noted that it was voluntary, so no teacher would be forced to carry a gun. They also pointed out that in many rural areas, it could take the police a long time to get to a school. Opponents of the bill said that it would make schools less safe with the potential for accidents.


Of the state’s 67 school districts, 25 have authorized some of their personnel to be armed. It is unclear how many will now permit teachers to do so, too.


Do you think that school teachers should be armed?

Warren Proposes Wiping out Student Debt with Wealth Tax

Senator Elizabeth Warren is trying to separate herself from a crowded field of Democratic candidates for president. Today she announced a plan that pairs two ideas that cause excitement for progressive activists: canceling student loan debt and a tax on wealthier Americans.


Under Sen. Warren’s plan, she would take revenue from her proposed annual tax on those who have more than $50 million in wealth and cancel student loans for millions of Americans. She calls for forgiveness of up to $50,000 of debt for people in households with an income under $100,000, and a partial cancelation of debt for those in households with incomes up to $250,000.


In addition, Sen. Warren has also proposed other reforms that she said would make college more affordable. These include elimination of tuition and fees at two-year and four-year institutions, expanding what federal Pell Grants can pay for, increase aid to historically black colleges and universities, and ban colleges from considering an applicant’s criminal history or citizenship status.


Supporter of Sen. Warren’s plan argue that student loan debt is overwhelming for many people. They say that this debt harms the economy by limiting the decisions that graduates can make. Opponents counter that those with debt should have the skills necessary to repay the debt, so taxpayers should not shoulder the burden. They also note that canceling this debt would disproportionately benefit the middle class and wealthier Americans.


Do you support canceling student loan debt? Should the government forbid colleges and universities from charging tuition?

Tuition-Free Community College Debated in Michigan

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer wants state taxpayers to fund community college tuition for the state’s high school graduates. But critics are pushing back, citing the plan’s high cost, among other things.


Gov. Whitmer unveiled the “Michigan Opportunity Scholarship” plan as part of her state budget last month. This scholarship would pay for high school graduates to attend community college full time without paying tuition or fees. It would also provide money for students who attend four-year colleges and universities in the state.


Proponents of this idea contend that it will help increase higher education rates. They say that today’s workforce requires higher education, so it makes sense for taxpayers to provide funding for students to obtain that education. Opponents note that this plan would cost up to $100 million a year. They also contend that this program would benefit middle income and higher-income Michiganders, who can already afford community college tuition. Lower-income students already qualify for Pell Grants, which cover community college tuition.


The fate of this idea now rests with legislators.


Do you think that state governments should pay for students’ community college tuition and fees?

Trump signs College Free Speech Order

Over the past few years, incidents of speakers being shut down at colleges around the nation have increasingly made news. Now President Donald Trump has waded into the controversy, issuing an executive order aimed at bolstering free speech on college campuses.


In his executive order, the president has directed federal agencies to ensure that colleges receiving federal research funds “promote free enquiry” and that private colleges receiving federal funds comply with their stated free speech policies.


The order states that colleges should not “creat[e] environments that stifle competing perspectives.” It also says that “it is the policy of the federal government to encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.”


In some high-profile cases, speakers invited by conservative groups have been shouted down or disinvited from speaking on college campuses. These incidents have garnered the notice of President Trump, who has praised some of the speakers.


It is unclear how much of an effect this executive order will have, since the schools affected are already bound by constitutional free speech guarantees. It may give the federal government a tool to use if egregious instances are reported, however.


Do you think that colleges and universities should do more to protect free speech? What role should the federal government play in policing free speech conflicts on campus?

Teachers’ Strike Kills Charter Schools, Education Choice in W. Virginia

Charter schools and education savings accounts will not be coming to West Virginia this year. Teachers across the state walked out of school to protest legislation that would enact these education reforms as well as increase teacher salaries. Legislators adjourned without passing the bill, ending the two-day teacher walkout.


West Virginia is currently one of the few states where no charter schools operate. These are public schools that have more freedom in terms of curriculum and hiring. They offer a greater choice in the type of education offered, but critics say they harm traditional public schools. The legislation at issue would have made it easier for these schools to open in West Virginia. Another provision would have established education savings accounts, which parents could use to pay for private school tuition if their children have special needs or have been bullied. In addition, the legislation contained a pay raise for teachers and more money for educational support services.


Teachers walked off their jobs to hold a vigil at the state capitol in opposition. Every school system in the state except one closed because of a lack of teachers. Legislators adjourned without considering the bill, which killed it for this year.


Do you support charter schools? Should parents be able to use education savings accounts to pay for private school tuition or other education expenses?

Harvard Trial Could Have Big Impact on Affirmative Action

Does Harvard’s “race-conscious” admissions policy illegally discriminate against Asian-American students?

That is the question at the heart of the trial that began this week pitting a group of Asian-American students against the Ivy League college. The Supreme Court has ruled that schools cannot use racial quotas in admissions, but has allowed some consideration of race.


The students are suing Harvard under the theory that the school’s race-conscious admissions policy allows it to manipulate potential students’ scores to achieve a certain racial balance. They contend that Asian-American students receive lower scores in some areas to balance out their higher academic and extracurricular activity scores. They argue that a race-blind process would lead to more Asian-American students allowed into Harvard.

The school denies discriminating against Asian-American students. It says that diversity is an important goal for an academic community that would be undermined if the courts find that using race-conscious admissions is illegal.


The group Students for Fair Admissions has brought this lawsuit. Its spokesman has said that affirmative action is not the issue here, but this case could lead to the Supreme Court. If that happens, the high court would have the opportunity to decide whether or not any racial factors should be at play when schools decide whom to admit and whom to deny.


Do you think that race should be a factor in college admissions?


Education Tax Hike Initiative Bounced from Arizona Ballot

School funding continues to be a hot topic in Arizona.


The state’s teachers were hoping that the Arizona residents would vote “yes” on a November initiative to raise taxes in order to provide more money for education. They gathered enough signatures to place this question before voters. However, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that signature gatherers misled the public, yanking the “Invest in Ed” initiative from the ballot.


This initiative comes after thousands of teachers spent days protesting at the capitol earlier this year. They staged a walkout in April in an attempt to force legislators and the governor to spend more on education. Unsatisfied with the resulting legislation that provided pay raises for teachers and additional education funding, teaches and activists turned to a ballot initiative to provide dedicated revenue for the state’s schools.


The “Invest in Ed” initiative would have increased taxes and used the resulting revenue specifically for education. For Arizonans making more than $250,000, the initiative would have imposed an 8% income tax (up from the current 4.25% tax). For those making $500,000 or more, the initiative would have imposed a 9% income tax rate. In addition, the initiative would have reset tax rates for Arizonans making incomes under $250,000 while also ending the indexing of tax rates for inflation.


The summary of the initiative used by signature gathers focused on the increased taxes for higher-income Arizonans while leaving out information about how it would affect other taxpayers. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce sued, contending that leaving this information out of the summary misled those who signed petitions to place the initiative on the ballot.


A majority of supreme court justices agreed. They said that this omission could create confusion or unfairness, so these signatures were invalid. The court ordered the initiative removed from the ballot.


This ends the possibility of Arizona voters deciding whether or not to raise taxes to fund education spending this year. Backers of this effort vow to keep up the fight to pressure legislators to increase school spending, however.


Do you think that taxes should be increased to pay for higher school spending?


Virginia Governor Denounces Plan to Arm Teachers


If the school board in a small Virginia county gets its way, teachers and staff members will soon be allowed to carry guns. This does not please Governor Ralph Northam. He has come out against the proposal, urging the attorney general to look into its legality.


Lee County is a rural county in the southwest part of Virginia. Its school board unanimously voted to allow some teachers and staff members to carry concealed weapons or store them in lockers at school. County officials have said that they cannot afford to hire more security for schools, so permitting staff members to carry guns is the only option to provide greater protection to students.


Governor Northam said that arming teachers is not a good idea. He said that school districts should wait for an opinion by the attorney general before undertaking this action. The attorney general’s office is researching the matter, but Attorney General Mark Herring has said that the law bans guns in schools with very few exceptions.


The issue of allowing teachers to carry guns to protect students has been discussed across the country after recent school shootings. Those in favor of the idea think that a teacher with a gun could be the first line of defense if a school shooting occurs. Others say that teachers should not be responsible for confronting armed intruders. Instead, those like Gov. Northam support providing more money for schools to hire security officers.

Do you support allowing teachers and school employees to carry guns to stop school shootings? Or should the government provide more money to schools in order to hire security guards?


Should Arizona Expand Education Savings Accounts?


Arizona legislators want to expand student access to state-funded savings accounts that could be used to pay for private school tuition. A group called Save our Schools Arizona doesn’t like that idea. In November, the state’s voters will decide the future of education choice in the state.


In 2017, Arizona legislators passed a law that Governor Doug Ducey signed that would expand the use of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). These accounts were first established in 2011 for students with disabilities whose parents opt them out of the public school system. The state Department of Education funds ESAs at 90% of the state’s spending for a student in his or her public school district. The money in an ESA can be used for education expenses such as private school tuition or textbooks. Under the 2017 legislation, any Arizona student would be eligible for an ESA.


Save our Schools Arizona collected enough signatures to place this issue on the ballot as a “veto referendum.” This will allow voters to overturn the law if a majority votes “no” in November.


The opponents of expanded ESAs contend that this is nothing more than a way to funnel taxpayer money to private schools. They argue that this will drain funding from public schools that do not have enough money. They also say that it will hurt the state’s efforts to improve education, something that will slow job growth.


Supporters of allowing more students access to ESAs counter that this is simply giving parents more control over the money being spent to educate their children. They say that parents, not bureaucrats, can better manage the money so that their children receive a better education. They also note that the opposition to expanding ESAs come from people who want to prop up public schools, no necessarily improve education for individual students.


Do you think that Arizona should provide resources so that parents have more education choices for children? Or are state-funded education savings accounts a way to undermine Arizona public schools?


Gov. Ducey Stands Behind Evolution Education in Arizona


In light of proposed changes to Arizona’s science curriculum standards, Governor Doug Ducey has come out firmly in favor of teaching evolution in the state’s schools. His stance puts him at odds with Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. She has proposed weakening the state curriculum’s language regarding evolution, and has expressed her personal support for teaching intelligent design.


The occasion for this disagreement comes as Arizona is looking to revises its existing high school science standards. As part of that, Superintendent Douglas has proposed changing how these standards refer to evolution. For instance, instead of references to “evolution,” the standards would say, “the theory of evolution.” She would also like to replace the use of “evolution” in some areas of the standards with terms like “biological diversity.”


Personally, Superintendent Douglas has also expressed that she thinks that intelligent design should also be taught in public schools. Intelligent design is a theory that an intelligence created and designed the universe, rather than it evolving through natural selection. She points out, however, that this is her own opinion and that none of the state’s science standards refers to or teaches intelligent design.


Asked about the controversy, Governor Ducey said that he believes the state should teach evolution as part of its science curriculum. He notes that creation stories can be taught in other areas, such as in literature courses. The governor has no direct say over school curriculum.


The state science standards will be set after public comments are taken into account.


Do you think that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution in public schools?


Florida Supreme Court Considering Quality Education Standard


What does it take to provide a “high quality” education? Florida voters, judges, and lawmakers have been wrestling with this issue for years. Soon the state Supreme Court will decide if courts should play a role in deciding how the state constitution’s quality education mandate should be interpreted.


In 1998, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that mandated the state provided a “high quality education system.” Advocacy groups and the state have waged a long legal battle to determine what these words mean. Groups suing the state say that the judicial branch should have a role in determining what constitutes a “high quality education system.” The state says that this is an inherently political question, so the courts should stay out of it.


In states like Connecticut and New York, judges have become involved in setting education spending levels in order to meet similar constitutional provisions in other states. Florida advocates want something similar in that state. They say that if there is no authority for the judiciary to mandate ways to comply with that constitutional provision, the education amendment is toothless.


The state pushes back against that argument, noting that there is no agreed-upon standard that will produce the mandated “high quality education system.” The state says that this is an inherently political decision, and that judges should not be setting education policy or determining education spending levels.


Lower courts have agreed with Florida’s arguments in this matter. The state Supreme Court, however, can overturn these lower court decisions and give the judicial branch authority to involve itself in the fight over Florida’s education policy.


Do you think that judges should be able to set education spending levels or determine what constitutes a “high quality” education?


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