Public Funds Public Schools (PFPS) has joined the National Education Association (NEA) and the Maine Education Association (MEA) in filing an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief supporting Maine’s decision not to use public school funding on tuition at private religious schools.
PFPS, a joint initiative of Education Law Center (ELC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), is a national campaign to ensure that public funds are used only to support and maintain public education and are not diverted to private schools.
Like other states, Maine’s constitution obligates the Legislature to maintain and support a system of public schools throughout the state available to all school-aged children. In carrying out this mandate, the Legislature allows local school administrative units (SAU) that do not operate their own public schools to provide education to resident students by paying tuition to certain approved, nonsectarian private schools. This limited mechanism has been in place since the nineteenth century.
Three Maine families filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the Legislature’s decision to limit the program to nonreligious schools. In Carson v. Makin, these families assert that the State’s exclusion of religious schools from the tuition program violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Justice, a pro-voucher group based in Arizona.
PFPS, NEA, and MEA submitted an amicus brief in support of the Maine Commissioner of Education’s defense of the law excluding sectarian schools. The brief emphasizes Maine’s compelling interest under the State Constitution to preserve the carefully regulated tuition program in its current, limited form. The brief urges the court to uphold Maine’s determination that sectarian schools should not be allowed to participate in the program in order to protect already limited public education funding and to avoid state entanglement with religion as well as public funding of discriminatory school policies.
The amicus brief explains that inclusion of sectarian schools in the tuition program would undermine the State’s careful construction of a limited program to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide publicly funded education in the narrow circumstances where a traditional public school is not available. Forcing the State to pay tuition to those schools would divert taxpayer dollars from an already underfunded public school system. It would also deeply enmesh the State in regulating matters of religion and effectively compel the State to fund discrimination because many private religious schools – including those identified by the plaintiffs as the preferred schools for their children – utilize policies that discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and/or disability.
“The people of Maine expect their tax dollars to go to fund public education, as their state constitution requires,” said Zoe Savitsky, SPLC deputy legal director. “The state has a duty, under both state and federal law, to only fund schools that serve all students, not schools that discriminate on the basis of, among other things, disability status, religion, or sexual orientation. We are urging the court, in this case, to uphold the law.”
“An expansion of Maine’s tuition program to schools with a religious education mission is contrary to the State’s affirmative constitutional duty to educate every school-aged child in adequately funded public schools and in a learning environment free from discrimination,” said Jessica Levin, ELC Senior Attorney and PFPS Director. “Our brief explains that forcing Maine to use public school funding to pay tuition to sectarian schools would undermine its compelling interest in providing high quality education to all students in well-resourced, nondiscriminatory schools.”
Motions for summary judgment in the case are currently being briefed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine.
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications