religious charters?

Churches running charter schools? The latest Supreme Court decision could open the door in some states

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Reverend Michael Faulkner wanted to start a charter school through his church in Harlem. But there was a problem: New York law bars religious denominations from running charters, even if, as Faulkner promised, the school would teach a secular curriculum.

So Faulkner — a one-time NFL player who ran for Congress in 2010 — and his church sued.

“The New York Charter Schools Act is nothing more than an attempt by the State to erect a barrier for those who express their religious beliefs from access to public resources that are generally available to all others,” read the 2007 complaint.

The suit was voluntarily dismissed in 2009, and Faulkner, now running for city comptroller, described it as “dormant.” But a recent Supreme Court decision might mean that suits like that one have a better chance of prevailing.

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer invalidated a Missouri rule banning a religious school from participating in a public program, and experts immediately noted it could be used to eliminate legal barriers to private school voucher programs. The implications for charter schools drew less attention.

But two legal scholars tell Chalkbeat that the ruling might also pave the way for more charter schools operated by religious groups, including churches.

“Trinity Lutheran opens the door because it states simply that if a religious entity is otherwise qualified to take part in a public benefit program, then it cannot be prohibited solely on the basis of its religious affiliation,” said University of Connecticut professor Preston Green.

Aaron Saiger, a law professor at Fordham University, agreed.

“I have no doubt that this case makes the door more open than it was a month ago,” said Saiger, who wrote a 2013 law review article on religious charters.

If it became easier for religious institutions to run charter schools, it would mark a significant change in several states. According to Green, who raised the idea of charters run by churches in a 2001 law review article, 10 states and Washington D.C. explicitly bar charters from being run by or affiliated with a religious entity.

Green and Saiger say those prohibitions might be threatened by the Supreme Court’s latest ruling. The decision could also affect rules on whether religious entities can authorize charter schools; in Indiana, a lawsuit was recently filed to stop a Christian college and seminary from overseeing charters.

If states or the court were to apply the Trinity Lutheran logic to charter schools, it would not necessarily mean that the schools could teach religion or offer religious services, only that they could be operated by a religious institution. All states with charter laws mandate that they maintain secular rules and a secular curriculum.

The Trinity Lutheran case focused on whether Missouri could bar a church-run preschool from participating in a program for resurfacing playgrounds. Missouri denied the school’s application, consistent with the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public money from going to religious institutions — a rule most states, including New York, have adopted.

The Supreme Court ruled that this amounted to religious discrimination and was thus unconstitutional. In a footnote, though, the decision was explicitly limited to the situation at hand. (Two conservative justices, who were part of the majority, disavowed that aspect of the opinion.)

The narrow ruling means the impact of Trinity Lutheran won’t be immediately felt, and that it will turn on further interpretation from lower courts, state legislators, and perhaps ultimately another Supreme Court case.

“While the court limited the decision in a footnote to the facts of that case … the court does go on to talk about a number of cases where it lays out the general proposition that religious entities cannot be discriminated against,” Green said.

Not everyone agrees that the recent opinion might affect charters. Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state, said Trinity Lutheran “shouldn’t open the door to those sorts of claims.”

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that there are heightened concerns with protecting public school students from government-sponsored religion,” he said.

Green does note one reason the Trinity Lutheran logic might not apply to charter schools: They are usually defined in statute as public schools. That means having an affiliation with a religious institution could raise greater church-and-state issues than the Trinity Lutheran case, where a private school was simply seeking to receive a public benefit.

Saiger, though, suggests that the implications of Trinity Lutheran might be even further-reaching than who gets to run a charter school. In his view, the case also raises the possibility of charters that are explicitly religious and teach a sectarian curriculum.

“I think the Trinity case makes it much easier to argue that such schools should be eligible for government support for the secular side of their mission,” he said.

There does not appear to be any data on how many existing charters have a religious association, but the line between church and charter school can be blurry in some cases.

For instance, some private Catholic schools have converted into charters; a 2014 report examined 18 schools across three states that had undergone this conversion.

Chalkbeat previously reported on a network of Michigan charter schools run by an organization that used to oversee private Christian schools, some of which converted into charters. The schools continue to emphasize character traits taken from the Bible, including faithfulness, though the schools no longer explicitly connect them to biblical passages.

A 2008 Yale Law Review article points to other examples, like Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a charter school in Minnesota:

“Children fast during Ramadan, and the cafeteria serves halal food throughout the year. Vacations take place on Muslim holidays. Students avoid stepping on the carpeted prayer area at the school’s center as they walk to class. Most significantly, classes break for early afternoon prayers; almost all students participate, although the school does not officially conduct them.”

Minnesota, like Michigan, prohibits religious entities from running charters. Tarek ibn Ziyad’s leaders contended that their school was nonsectarian, but it was nevertheless sued by the ACLU in Minnesota for acting as a publicly funded religious school. The school was eventually forced to shut down in 2011 after a state law prohibited out-of-state charter authorizers; it had been overseen by an Islamic humanitarian group based in Washington D.C.

Faulkner, for his part, said that charters should be required to maintain non-religious rules and a secular curriculum. He believes that religious institutions can do that.

“Just because it’s religiously affiliated doesn’t mean it’s going to … teach a particular religion,” he said.

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”

new chapter

Frosty relationship thaws between parents group Memphis Lift and Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leaders of Memphis Lift take literally Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's call to "lock arms and work together" following Hopson's presentation to the parent advocacy group on Monday evening.

When Memphis Lift launched two years ago, leaders of Shelby County Schools questioned the motives and methods behind the group’s parent advocacy, including its early paid work to canvass neighborhoods about the district’s low-performing schools.

But this week, the two entities appeared to turn a page in their often contentious relationship. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson paid a visit on Monday night as part of the group’s monthly speaker series, and the organization welcomed him warmly.

“When you have the challenges we have here in Memphis, we have to lock arms and work together,” Hopson told about 100 people in attendance. “At the end of day, there’s an undeniable correlation between parental involvement and achievement.” 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hopson talks about the need for equitable funding and parental involvement.

Hopson’s decision to engage Memphis Lifters stands in stark contrast to late 2015 when he questioned whether the parent group was truly independent — or just a mouthpiece for the state-run Achievement School District, a turnaround program that takes control of struggling schools and usually converts them to charter schools. Those suspicions prompted Shelby County Schools to deny the ASD’s request for student information out of concern that the material would be given to Memphis Lift, whose orange-shirted members were going door-to-door to talk with families about local schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

But things have changed a lot. Tennessee’s Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings this year while adding new tools for turnaround work. Memphis Lift, which launched in mid-2015 amid questions about its legitimacy, has demonstrated staying power by developing its grassroots base and leadership. And the need to increase parental involvement was cited as a priority at community meetings held last fall across the district.

“When we first started, (SCS leaders) were saying we worked for the ASD, then charters,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director for Memphis Lift. “Now, I think they get we’re here for all children. … Dorsey coming to speak is a very exciting moment for us.”

Carpenter said a turning point came this spring when Hopson visited their offices in north Memphis, where the group hosts programs to educate parents about policy and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

“I think Dorsey was surprised by what we were doing here,” Carpenter said. “He asked what he needed to do to reach more parents, and I told him he needed to be more accessible. We only saw him at school board meetings.” 

Hopson made himself available Monday night by speaking about Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan to raise reading levels and graduation rates and develop career readiness for students. During the two-hour exchange, he also took questions from the crowd.

The superintendent emphasized the need for more pre-K seats and for third-graders to read on grade level. He said the district can’t do its job without parental involvement and encouraged Memphis Lift to advocate for more dollars for Memphis schools and for high-needs students.

“All parents and advocacy groups should be aligned on a few things — number one being equitable funding for kids,” Hopson said. “This is a powerful group, if you show up and say here’s what we want, (elected leaders are) not going to ignore it.”