From Maine to Puerto Rico, school choice spawns legal battles

Friday, August 31, 2018
 | 
Bob Kellogg (OneNewsNow.com)

books with moneyThe Virginia-based Institute for Justice is battling on behalf of parents who want the freedom to choose how their children are educated.

Three families in Maine are in court fighting a state law that prohibits them from participating in the school tuition program because the schools they chose are religious. It's the third effort to have the law declared unconstitutional. However, Institute for Justice senior attorney Timothy Keller says a Supreme Court decision in the Trinity Lutheran vs. Comer case in Missouri last year bolsters their case this time.

"The principle laid down in Trinity Lutheran clearly applies in states like Maine, which have decided to exclude religious schools simply because they're religious and for no other reason," he tells OneNewsNow.

Parents in the Pine Tree State who live in sparsely populated towns without public schools receive public funds to send their children to the school of their choice – whether public or private. But because "families who choose non-religious schools receive tuition support while parents who select a religious school do not," Keller says the law is discriminatory.

"This lawsuit seeks to end that religious discrimination," he adds.

There are two other similar cases – one in Montana and the other in Washington State. Keller is confident one of the three will make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

PR court sides with school choice

Another attorney with Institute for Justice has been dealing with a school choice-related case in Puerto Rico, where to the relief of frustrated parents the territory's Supreme Court upheld the law providing an educational scholarship program.

In March, the Puerto Rican legislature enacted the "Free School Selection Program." Attorney Erica Smith of the Institute for Justice describes the island's public schools as abysmal.

"There's a lot of violence; on the standardized tests, these kids are only getting maybe five percent proficiency in reading and math," she says. "The teachers are apathetic – and the schools will just close one or two days a week with almost no notice to the parents."

Smith says almost immediately after the legislation was signed, the teachers' union in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit to stop these scholarships from going to families.

"And they actually relied on a previous case from the Puerto Rican Supreme Court from 1994, which had said that this type of program was unconstitutional," the attorney explains. "But fortunately we were able to persuade the court to overturn its previous decision and uphold the program."

As a result of the new law, up to 10,000 Puerto Rican families will be able to apply for government scholarships that will be available beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

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