When Amy Carson and her husband, David, decided to sue their state, they had no intention of being part of a landmark Supreme Court decision. It was much simpler than that. “Our town has an elementary and middle school, but no high school,” Carson says of where the family lives in Maine. And the private school the Carsons wanted to send their daughter to in nearby Bangor happened to be Christian.
The Carsons’ hometown of Glenburn, a town of 4,500 on the emerald shore of a warm water lake in rural Maine, is so small it doesn’t have its own zip code. There are 143 districts like theirs in Maine: rural areas with no public high schools, a deficit the state makes up for by paying to send children to local private schools instead – but only if they are “non-sectarian”, that is to say non-religious.
While the Carsons wanted to send their daughter to Bangor Christian, religion was not the call. Carson told me the family doesn’t go to church “as much as we should,” explaining that she doesn’t attend at all and her husband only attends a few times a year. “We really work seven days a week,” she says. Her husband is a general contractor and she keeps the books for the business.
The draw of Bangor Christian is that it is an excellent school. “You talk about small classes and things like that, and that really helped her,” Carson says.
There was also an emotional appeal: it happened to be the school that Amy and David Carson attended. All of David’s siblings also went there, and his mother had been a teacher there.
Tuition was expensive — $5,950 a year — and they had been preparing for the financial sacrifice for years, but Carson says they were happy to pour their resources into their daughter. There had been another child before her, Carson said, but that one had died young. So their daughter was all they had and they were going to give her the best they could.
Plus, parents in their district had eight other private schools to choose from, Amy says. Why shouldn’t Bangor Christian be among the choices? It seemed that the state was discriminating against religious schools; this non-sectarian clause infringed the First Amendment families’ right to the free exercise of religion. And that’s what their trial was about.
The Carsons didn’t even bother asking Maine to pay for their daughter’s tuition at Bangor Christian because they knew the state wouldn’t fund education at a non-denominational school, Carson says. Instead, they joined a lawsuit against state education commissioner Pender Makin — a case that was decided by the Supreme Court this summer.
Carson v. Makin has been called “the sleeper business”. Flying under the radar, it barely made headlines as judges handed down landmark rulings on abortion and prayer in schools. But stakeholders on all sides say the ramifications of the Carson decision will prove just as significant. The decision has huge implications for American public schools as well as the separation between church and state.
After the lower courts ruled against the families, the case went to the Supreme Court, where, in a 6-3 decision, the justices sided with the three families, saying the stipulation “no sectarian” in the state of Maine is effectively discriminatory against religion. While religious freedom advocates viewed the decision as a victory, in the dissenting opinion, Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers are beaten to build.
While up for debate, the case could have broader implications for K-12 education. The decision expands on two previous Supreme Court decisions that support the privatization of education and the use of public funds for religious education: the 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which states that tax-funded scholarships could be used at private institutions, religious institutions, and the landmark 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which allowed Ohioans to use state-funded vouchers to send their children to religious schools under certain circumstances.
The decision has huge implications for American public schools and the separation between church and state.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center and professor at the University of Colorado at the Boulder School of Education, says this trend towards privatization represents a hollowing out of the country’s public schools – slowly transforming a system that was designed to be a great equalizer in one that Welner compared to a developing country.
But advocates of educational freedom — a catch-all for a variety of different programs, including school choice, vouchers, and public funding of private and religious schools — say providing parents with a wider range of choice benefits children and will energize the education system. “I think (competition) would encourage schools — public schools and other schools — to improve,” Carson says. Educational freedom also allows parents to send their children to schools that will reinforce the values they are teaching at home, Carson adds.
Proponents of academic freedom say the judges’ ruling does not explicitly support religious schools. “The Carson decision…did not say that states should fund religious schools,” says Andrew Handel, director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education and Workforce Task Force, a conservative nonprofit organization that drafts model legislation to share with state legislatures around the world. the country.
When asked if, in the wake of Carson, there might be a wave of state legislation that would guarantee the rights of states to channel public funds to religious private schools, Handel replied that such legislation would not was not necessary. “That being said, I think the case makes it easier for state legislatures to pass broad educational freedom programs.”
Additionally, proponents of educational freedom argue that the so-called “wall of separation between church and state” stems from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote that does not actually appear in the Constitution. Nor was the public school system ever meant to be completely secular, says Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The public school system as we know it was created in the 1830s and 1840s (as) the common school” in part because “Horace Mann and his cronies wanted to keep Catholic children from being Catholic and make them read the Protestant Bible in school,” says Hess, referring to Mann, who is widely known as the father of American education.
As for the argument that school choice will crowd out public education, proponents of educational freedom point out that even without formal school choice, the free market creates options for families who can afford it: those who have the money to do so choose to settle in certain neighborhoods which house certain schools, public or otherwise. “The question is who will get school choice,” says Michael McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, a nonprofit that aims to advance freedom and choice in education. “It’s not about whether or not there will be school choice or whether or not there is. It’s ‘Who’s gonna get it now?’
On top of that, public schools are already segregated and suffer from problems associated with the concentration of poverty, McShane acknowledges. And there is no miracle solution. So rather than trapping students in public schools, why not offer parents the option of sending their children elsewhere, including to private, faith-based schools?
Educational freedom initiatives “cannot solve poverty. They can’t cure racism, so all of these things are still going to impact kids and the options available to them,” McShane says. “The idea, however, is to try to give as many children as possible more choice.”
But, for some Americans, school choice doesn’t mean more options. It means less, says Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy issues at American Atheists, because it opens the door to public funding for institutions that discriminate on the basis of religion and students and families from LGBTQ backgrounds. .
“We are moving away from public school systems designed to serve the whole community and towards schools that are publicly funded and run by churches…and other providers beyond the control of the community,” says Welner .
In the long term, those advocating now for increased public funding of private schools will likely want to reduce those subsidies, says Welner, explaining, “The purpose of privatization…is also to reduce the tax burden.
This means that we will eventually move away not just from publicly funded education, but from a system “where families will bear the cost of the burden,” says Welner, leading to even more stratification and discrimination than none already exist in the country. Like India and other developing countries, some American families “will be able to provide a quality education for their children, but others will not,” Welner says.
“Education provides a private benefit and a public benefit. When my daughter goes to school, schools provide her and my family with private benefits by helping her succeed in life. But our schools also serve a public good; they serve our economy, they serve our democracy,” says Welner. “Education in the United States is transforming – and this transformation is jeopardizing many benefits.”
Amy Carson disagrees.
She pointed out that before 1981, Maine offered parents the option of sending their children to private religious schools if there were no public schools in the area. This “non-sectarian” clause was imposed in 1981, so, according to her, the recent decision restores the previous system. “These types of programs have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and we (the country) have done very well,” she says.
If the Supreme Court’s decision is read narrowly, she adds, it will only apply to 2% of the state’s population.
With their daughter already in college, the ruling won’t apply to the Carsons. But their individual situation was never really the point — joining the trial was always less for them and more for the good of the community, says Carson, “Anytime you can help families, that’s a win.”
This story appears in the October issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.