Carson v. Makin Puts Religion and Charter Schools on the Table in Connecticut


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A recent  U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to extend funding for private school vouchers to include religious schools will not immediately affect Connecticut, but has the potential to reshape the state’s charter schools according to experts asked by CT Examiner.

The court ruled 6-3 on Tuesday in the case Carson v. Makin that states with programs offering vouchers to students from private schools must also offer vouchers to students who wish to attend religious schools. The ruling came from a case in Maine, which offers vouchers for students who live in rural areas without an accessible public school to attend private schools. 

Connecticut does not have any kind of program that pays for students to attend private schools, meaning that the state will not be directly impacted by the court’s ruling. But it could open the door to funding through charter schools.

According to Preston Green III, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, the fact that public funding for private schools has to include  religious schools could be interpreted to allow for funding religious charter schools. 

“Charter schools can be independently run, so the question becomes, who can run these schools?” said Green. “So if you have anyone other than a school board run a school, then churches will say, ‘Oh, well we want to be one of those entities that can run a school’ … and then they’ll push it and say that, ‘And then we want it to be religious.’”

A charter school can be run by a variety of institutions, including public and private colleges and universities, non-profits, local boards of education and Regional Education Service Centers. Currently, the state has 20 state-operated charter schools and one locally run charter school. Connecticut caps the number of students in a district who can attend a charter school, but it doesn’t cap the number of charter schools that can be developed across the state. 

Current law says that private educational institutions are not allowed to become charter schools, and that charter schools are required to accept all students, regardless of race, sexual orientation or any other identifying characteristic. 

But Green said that if the Supreme Court decision extends to religious charter schools, it will lead to all sorts of questions about how much control religious institutions would be able to have over what goes on in the charter school. 

The result, he said, would most likely be a lot of litigation. 

Mira Debs, the executive director of Yale University’s Education Studies Program, said there are many countries in which religious schools are just part of the framework of public schooling – Canada, for instance. The difference, she said, is that those schools have to follow state regulations on things like hiring practices, curriculum and accountability. 

“What strikes me as really unusual in the way that our voucher process is being rolled out and the potential future for religious schools is that we’re handing over a lot of public money without any of the accompanying regulations,” said Debs. 

Some examples of these regulations, Debs said, included making sure that students are getting services for special education, that schools do not discriminate against LGBTQ students, that faculty are able to receive health care plans that include birth control, and ensuring that the students are getting “a quality education.”  

“I think if the Supreme Court wants to open up the pathways to fund religious schools, we need to be serious about the regulation that goes along with it,” said Debs. 

In an Amicus Curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs, a group of religious organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Association of Christian Schools, the Christian Legal Society and the National Association of Evangelicals wrote that excluding religious schools from private school vouchers amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion. They argued that religious schools teach the standard core classes used in public and private schools, and that in Maine, they are subject to the same criteria for school approval. 

“Religious schools teach the same secular subjects as other schools; in providing benefits assisting the teaching of these subjects, the state cannot discriminate on the basis that some schools also teach religion,” the brief reads. 

Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Bishop Thomas Daly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also praised the ruling in a statement on Tuesday. 

“In our pluralistic society, it is vital that all people of faith be able to participate in publicly available programs and so contribute to the common good,” the statement read. 

Debs said that if the ruling was applied to religious charter schools, the effects may not be as apparent in Connecticut because the state tightly regulates its charter schools. Unlike in other states, where multiple entities — including, in some cases, private universities — can approve a charter school, in Connecticut the only group that can approve a charter is the state Board of Education. 

“Connecticut is considered a fairly charter unfriendly state,” said Debs.

Ruben Felipe, of the Connecticut Charter School Association, said in a statement that the organization opposed all discrimination, and that the court decision should not be an impetus for people to “falsely and unjustly target and villainize” charter school students and staff. 

“CTCSA stands firmly in support of the sacred separation of church and state and against any institution that would use this ruling to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, their families or anyone else,” Felipe wrote in his statement. 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.