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Aug. 7, 2020

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U.S. Supreme Court decision on religious schools unlikely to have immediate impact in Washington

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A decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday opened the door for religious private schools to receive greater public assistance. While the ruling is significant, it’s unlikely to have an immediate impact in Washington.

In the 5-4 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, the court ruled the Montana Supreme Court was wrong to strike down a tuition assistance program passed by the legislature. That program allowed up to $150 in tax credits for scholarships to private schools, including religious ones. The court’s decision means states that provide funds to private secular schools must also provide funds to private religious schools.

Using public funds to support private religious schools has long been controversial because of the separation of church and state. There are 29 states that offer tax incentives for scholarships, or vouchers, to private schools. Under this ruling, those states might need to offer the same incentive for students who want to attend religious schools.

Washington is not one of those states. But there’s a good chance that, as a result of this ruling, religious institutions might one day apply to open a publicly funded charter school, said Joel Paul, a constitutional law scholar at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

The Supreme Court’s decision could be interpreted to mean the state can’t deny aid to that charter school, he said.

If a religious institution applied to be a public charter, Paul predicted the local school board would sue to stop it. “That would be a very big court fight,” he said.

Washington entered the charter school arena in 2012, and has allowed charters to grow slowly; the Washington Charter School Association lists nine public charters, with another five set to open this fall. Last year, four charter schools in Washington closed abruptly.

The Supreme Court’s decision was hailed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has long favored government support for students who want to attend a religious school.

“This decision represents a turning point in the sad and static history of American education,” she said in a statement, “and it will spark a new beginning of education that focuses first on students and their needs.”

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