The U.S. Supreme Court warns against state funding of private schools

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has again ruled that a state will be required to fund religious schooling if, but only if, it provides funding for private schooling. Speaking for the Court’s Republican supermajority in Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts put it this way: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” The words may seem familiar because Roberts previously stated them to be the law of the land in a case from Montana in 2020.

It is a given that there will be a concerted effort in the Idaho Legislature next year to enact legislation, such as a school voucher program, that would allow state funds to be used for private schooling. If such legislation were to be approved, SCOTUS has just made it clear that Idaho taxpayer money will have to also go to support religious schooling. And, the fact is that the State will have little oversight on the use of those funds or what theology the taxpayers will be required to finance.

The Idaho Constitution strictly prohibits the use of public funds for any form of religious education. For the past 132 years, the separation of public money from religious instruction has been rigidly upheld in Idaho. SCOTUS has unfortunately provided a workaround. Those who want to pay taxpayer money to religious schools can simply pass a voucher program to evade the prohibition in our Constitution.

Idaho voters need to let legislators know that the diversion of taxpayer money to private schooling will further degrade public education for Idaho kids. Legislators are mandated by the Idaho Constitution to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” The Legislature has chronically failed to honor that mandate.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that Idaho’s funding of educational facilities was wholly inadequate to meet the constitutional requirement. The situation is growing worse each year. A recent study disclosed that it would take about $850 billion to bring public school facilities up to good condition. Supplemental school levies against taxpayers have increased from $140 million in the 2011-2012 school year to $218 million in 2021-2022. Idaho has ranked last in the nation for per-pupil spending during each of the last two school years. The State is obviously vulnerable to legal action for its constitutional failure to support its school system.

If legislators take money that should be used for public schools and divert it to private schooling, they will surely invite a lawsuit. The State has no business supporting private schools, while the public school system is suffering from insufficient funding.

The so-called Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) and its supporters in the Legislature are doing their level best to sabotage the public school system. They have worked hard to underfund the school system, endangering its effectiveness. They then point to the lack of student achievement as grounds for supporting school choice alternatives. A voucher program would be a disaster for public schools, particularly in rural areas where the local school is the heart and soul of the community. Local taxpayers would remain on the hook for all of the bonds they had to float because of the Legislature’s failure to meet its constitutional funding responsibility.

The IFF will claim that the recent SCOTUS decision makes Idaho’s prohibition against financing religious schools inoperable. That simply is not the case. So long as the Legislature does not approve some sort of scheme to subsidize private school education, the constitutional prohibition remains effective. We need to improve our public education system by ensuring it has sufficient funding to properly educate our kids, not to consign it to the trash heap.

Jim Jones

About Jim Jones

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served 8 years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).

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