House Committee Rejects Public Funding for Private and Religious Schools

February 26, 2015

The House Committee on Rules last night rejected two amendments to the House of Representatives' version of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Seconary Education Act (ESEA) that would have funneled billions in taxpayer funding from public to private and religious schools.  

You can view the full list of approved and rejected amendments here

Over the past several years, some members of Congress have advocated for the concept of "portability," especially in regards to Title I funds. Title I was originally designed to allocate and target federal funds to the poorest and neediest school districts and schools in our country. Portability would instead disperse the funds equally to every student, regardless of whether their public school or the student actually needs those extra dollars. These same members of Congress have also advocated for portability for private and religious schools, which would disperse the funds equally to every student and allow them to follow the student outside the public school system. 

Indeed, public school portability proponents have made no secret that their ultimate goal is to direct taxpayer funds — every American's money — to private and religious schools. There are dozens of reasons to oppose these voucher schemes: they demolish the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment; they deprive minority and LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities, of fundamental rights and protections guaranteed to them in public schools; they fund schools that can discriminate in employment based on religious dogma; they fail to improve student education; and they lack accountability at all levels.

Accordingly, the Center for Inquiry has worked with its partners in the National Coalition for Public Education to oppose any such attempts to make Title I funds portable; even public portability is clearly nothing more than a stepping-stone tofederal funding for private and religious schools. Unfortunately the House's ESEA reauthorization bill, H.R. 5, does include public school portability. However, this week members of the House tried to expand the bill to include portability for private and religious schools. Fortunately, their efforts failed.

Last night, the House Committee on Rules considered two amendments, proposed by Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), that would have allowed private and religious school portability. The Committee rejected both amendments, actions which we applaud. 

But, as is often the case on Capitol Hill, that is not the end of the story. The Committee also considered an amendment by Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) that "reaffirms students, teachers and schools administrators’ right to exercise religion. In addition, it is the sense of Congress that schools examine their policies to ensure students and teachers are fully able to participate in activities on school grounds related to their religious freedom." The problem with this amendment is not neccesarily what it says, but what it doesn't say. It is true that students, teachers, and administrators have the right to freedom of religion, under the Free Exercise Clause. But the amendment fails to explain the equally important fact that the Establishment Clause sets out some limits on those rights. Explaining only half of the First Amendment is misleading and invites Constitutional violations.

In addition, the Committee rejected a proposed amendment by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) to "prohibit[s] discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools." 

All in all, we are glad that H.R. 5 will ostensibly keep public funds in the public school system, and out of unaccountable private and religious schools. But, as evidenced by the public school portability clause in the base bill and the votes on the aforementioned amendments, there is still work to be done. Rest assured CFI and our coalition partners will continue to oppose schemes which would hand billions in taxpayer dollars — raised from citizens of all beliefs — to private and religious schools, and defend secular, pluralistic public education, which is good for all Americans.

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