The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case centered on public funds for private religious schools. Proponents of the “school choice” movement initiated the case, seeking to widen the choices available for parents that want to send their children to religious schools. On the other side, the state of Maine argues that its current public-school funding is sufficient education for students and that private religious schools shouldn’t receive public funds.
The Maine case is unusual due to Maine’s public school system. The northern state is primarily rural, and many communities don’t have a single public school. Instead, many communities are served by a single private school, averaging around 4,000 students each. The state pays for most of these students’ tuition, extending a “public” education to all residents.
However, Maine doesn’t extend this program to religious schools. Parents who enroll their children in religious education programs must cover tuition themselves. Two Maine families took issue with this arrangement and sued the state over religious freedom rights.
“Instruction that inculcates, instills, imbues a particularly religious view through its materials, through its teachings, prescribing that there’s one religion above others and that there are certain ways of the world that are consistent with that religion … is not consistent with a public education,” explains Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey.
So far, the courts have agreed with the state’s position. By choosing not to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools, federal appeals court judge David Souter argues, the state isn’t punishing religious families. Instead, Maine is offering a nonsectarian alternative, but not subsidizing religious education.
“Maine provides tuition to families to use at the school of their choice, whether it’s public or private, in-state or out-of-state,” the families’ attorney, Michael Bindas, tells reporters. “But there is one thing that the state prohibits, and that is a parent’s choice of religious school. Once the state provides a benefit in the form of tuition to use at private schools, it has to remain neutral as between religious and non-religious private schools.”
The Supreme Court has a decisive conservative majority. Six Justices were appointed by Republican presidents, compared to only three Democratic appointees. Judicial scholars expect the court to rule in favor of the school choice movement, potentially compelling states around the country to offer public funding for religious schools. However, the conservative supermajority has defied expectations before, making the case potentially pivotal for the school choice movement.