What A Recent Supreme Court Ruling Means For Arizona Religious Schools

Published: Wednesday, July 1, 2020 - 1:50pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a victory to school choice advocates this week. The justices upheld the Montana law that provides a tax credit for donations to organizations that award private school scholarships. The Montana Supreme Court had ruled against the program because those scholarships could be used to attend religious schools. But the court ruled doing so discriminated against religious schools. The Montana law mirrors one here in Arizona that's been a core piece of the school choice debate for years. And joining us for a few minutes is Matt Beienburg, director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute. Matt, good morning.

MATT BEIENBURG: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GOLDSTEIN: Good to have you. So stretch this out for us. What could this ruling really mean for Arizona families? How significant is it?

BEIENBURG: Sure. Well, the ruling is clearly wonderful news for the families in Montana and for students and families across the country. It's likely to have a larger impact in other states outside of Arizona. I think as you guys are aware, Arizona has a pretty vibrant landscape for school choice, both on the public side with charters and district schools. We also have very vibrant private school options, including our own tax credit scholarship program and [Empowerment Scholarship Account] ESA program. Those programs have already gone through our court system and have been upheld. So whereas the Montana program had been sort of cut down in its infancy by its court, the Arizona programs actually had been allowed to proceed based on the interpretations of the courts here and the way our laws are written.

GOLDSTEIN: We certainly know the battle that's been going on here in Arizona over expansion. Does this ruling open the door for an expansion of our own scholarship tax credit program here?

BEIENBURG: So, again, the way that it set up, our, our program already is allowed to run. We are already serving thousands of students through this. Again, one of, one of the differences is that the law in Montana was trying to explicitly discriminate against religious schools, whereas in Arizona, the laws are set up in a way that Arizona's tax credit scholarship program is able to help students go to schools, whether they are secular, whether they are religious. Those are taxpayer funds that are not going directly through an appropriation, but essentially through donations. So families can support that and then have those students take advantage of those opportunities.

GOLDSTEIN: Matt, do you get the sense that this ruling from the Supreme Court sets any kind of precedent for future school choice type policy that states, including Arizona, might try to enact?

BEIENBURG: I think it definitely makes it easier so that, you know, you don't have states like Montana. You've had other states strike down policies in the past. You know, whether there are things like vouchers or scholarship tax credits, you've had a lot of pushback from states claiming, you know, that there's a separation here. And I think this really makes it clear that, you know, the intent of these laws is for options to be there for students and not to try and strike it down. The Montana Supreme Court essentially decided that they would rather have it where no students can be served by this tax credit program than students — risk having students go to a religious school. And I think this makes it clear that discrimination that's going to actively target religious schools isn't going to be tolerated. And so whether it's, whatever the state, Montana or others, no longer sort of subject to these, these Blaine amendments, as they're called, which, which target these.

GOLDSTEIN: So Matt, to what extent do you think this shapes the debate? We are in an election year. And of course, we've been talking so much about education and modifying things here in Arizona. COVID has, has changed that to at least some extent for a while. But does this renew any arguments, does it bring up any new arguments or just cement the ones we've heard?

BEIENBURG: Sure. I think it does revisit — you know, we hear a lot about, "Well, separation of church and state." We don't — you know, the unions push the argument a lot and says, "We don't want to be funding religious education." And I think this kind of helps do a few things. You know, as Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion, the U.S. actually has a pretty strong record throughout time of helping schools, regardless of the nature. You know, as he pointed out in the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress actually spent large sums of education, including on denominational schools, to help freed slaves. And so we hear a lot about this being some expansion and a scheme to send money to religious or private schools. I would actually look at the historical record on this. And you know, we're still doing this today through things like Pell Grants and helping private schools at the college level. And so really, I think this helps to reorient people and realize that, you know, the union talking point has proven sort of popular in our narrative. But really, I think the historical record and the opportunities for students is really on the side of this ruling. So it really is great news.

GOLDSTEIN: Matt, let's finish up the big picture. COVID-19 has met so many new questions about how we approach education. We've seen the actual push back now to at least mid-August for classrooms to reopen. Do you think that will have any impact on parents' general views of [School Tuition Organizations] STOs and ESAs, et cetera, on, on either side?

BEIENBURG: Yeah. Also a great question. I mean, we've seen actually a lot of pressure on, on especially private schools. You know, dozens of them have already announced permanent closures as a result of COVID-19, whereas public schools sort of have the luxury of guaranteed funding through state formulas, private schools really depend on school — on parents being able, you know, struggling to pay those tuition costs. And the private schools then struggling to meet their needs. And so, you know, with economic uncertainty, a lot of those schools have been suffering, even though parents have indicated that they are looking for options and choices. And so making sure that programs like the Montana program and others are there, I think really is something that really, regardless of your political leanings, I think folks can start to see the logic behind this that says, "Look, we want to make sure that these options exist for the students," especially in a time like now where there is so much financial pressure being put on families and the need for educational flexibility.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. That is Matt Beienburg. He is director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute. Matt, thank you.

BEIENBURG: Thank you very much.

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