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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.