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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.