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What can we expect in West Michigan from the recent Supreme Court ruling that would force taxpayers to underwrite religious education?

July 1, 2020

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5 – 4 vote, that public tax money can be used for religious education, which as many organization have already noted makes a laughing stock of the separation between Church and State. 

The ruling was in regards to the case known as Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Last year, the ACLU framed this case with the following summary

At issue in Espinoza is a voucher-type program in Montana designed to divert millions in government dollars to private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are religiously affiliated. The program, enacted in 2015, allows taxpayers to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to Student Scholarship Organizations, which then award scholarships to students attending private elementary and secondary schools. In other words, if a taxpayer owes the state, say, $100 in taxes, she can decide instead to send that money directly to an SSO, which will then spend it on private-school scholarships. In practice, the tax-credit program has served its unmistakable goal of funneling government dollars to religious education: The only SSO operating in the state supports 13 private schools, 12 of which are religiously affiliated, and over 94 percent of program scholarships have gone to finance religious education.

The American Federal of Teachers weighed in on this decision, by saying: 

“Never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education. It will hurt both the 90 percent of students who attend neighborhood public schools, by siphoning off needed funds, and, in the long term, those who attend religious schools by curtailing their freedom with the accountability that comes with tax dollars.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the White House released a statement yesterday, a statement calling for a celebration.  Betsy DeVos, who has been one of the major architects of the privatization of education movement, joined the White House in celebrating this legal decision, with her own statement released on Tuesday:

“Today’s decision is a historic victory for America’s students and all those who believe in fundamental fairness and freedom. Each and every student needs the freedom to find their education fit, and today the Highest Court in the Land has protected that right by ensuring that families can use taxpayer funds to choose schools that match their values and educational goals, including faith-based schools. I applaud the Court’s decision to assign a manifestation of the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Montana and other states should be very clear about this historic decision: your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried. Too many students have been discriminated against based on their faith and have been forced to stay in schools that don’t match their values. This decision represents a turning point in the sad and static history of American education, and it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs. I’m calling on all states to now seize the extraordinary opportunity to expand all education options at all schools to every single student in America.”

For those who have been following the political agenda of the DeVos family would not be surprised by this decision and Betsy’s ringing endorsement, especially since the Prince and DeVos families have spent millions to support political candidates and organizations across the country that share the belief that the US should operate by the Ten Commandments and not any other legal, secular framework.

One of the organizations that the Prince and DeVos families have funded in West Michigan is the far right Think Tank, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which we have written about extensively. Earlier this year, the Acton Institute referred to the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case as an example of anti-Catholic bigotry. As of this writing, we have not seen a formal response to the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from the Acton Institute, but it is only a matter of time until they do. 

Now, considering that West Michigan is deeply conservative, both politically and religiously, what impact do you think this will have on public education in the short term and the long term?

One of the largest Charter School Corporations already exists in West Michigan, the National Heritage Academies. The DeVos family and other members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure have been working to influence how the Grand Rapids Public School functions. Plus, Public Schools are already struggling financially, and Betsy DeVos recently allowed COVID-19 relief funds to go to Charter and other private education institutions.

Lastly, the group that Betsy DeVos founded, the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), also weighed on the Supreme Court ruling, saying: 

“The ruling in Espinoza v. Montana means more students in those states will have access to additional school choices, empowering parents to select and students to attend the school that best meets their needs.  The ruling does not immediately or directly affect current Michigan law, but it signals to parents across the state the Supreme Court’s willingness to defend their constitutional rights, and their right to choose the schools that best meet the needs of their children.”

What GLEP had to say should tell us that Michigan is likely to face more legal challenges around school funding, especially from religious schools and the organization that support them. It is incumbent upon all of us to remain vigilant and see how this ruling by the US Supreme Court will impact education in the state and right here in West Michigan.

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