A divided U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped the major issue in a case involving an Arizona scholarship program that effectively funnels public money into private religious schools, ruling 5-4 that Arizona taxpayers bringing the case did not have standing to sue because they weren’t directly affected by the program.
“We’re disappointed,” said NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negron Jr. “The court’s ruling encourages bad educational policy that serves small numbers of children and discriminates on the basis of religion.”
In ruling that the plaintiffs did not have standing, the court majority drew a distinction between tax breaks and direct government funding of sectarian schools. That position drew a lengthy dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, who noted that “cash grants and targeted tax breaks are means of accomplishing the same government objective — to provide financial support to select individuals or organizations.”
The program gives state income tax breaks to donors who provide tuition for children to attend private, predominately religious schools. NSBA argued that the program violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from advancing religion. But the high court never got to the constitution issue itself, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a “swing voter” on controversial cases, writing the majority opinion.
“By ruling solely on the question of standing, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to set aside legislative schemes aimed at diverting public tax dollars into private, sectarian hands,” Negron said.
In its brief, NSBA noted that most of the students in the program had been attending private schools before receiving scholarships and that the program was too small to give public school parents the financial support to send their children to private schools.
Joining NSBA in the amicus brief were the Arizona School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, and the Arizona Education Association.