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Federal Flash: Should Federal Dollars Go to Religious Schools?

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January 27, 2020 03:36 pm

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Today’s Federal Flash covers the latest education-related case to hit the Supreme Court, the roll-back of Obama-era changes to the school lunch program, and the new OPEN Center at the Department of Education.


Education-Related Case Hits the Supreme Court

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. At its core, the case is about school choice and the use of public funds to pay for religious schools. Specifically, Montana had a program that provided tax credits to those who donated to private scholarship organizations. These organizations could then use the donations to give scholarships to needy families who wanted to send their children to private school, including religiously-affiliated schools. Montana’s supreme court ruled the tax credit was indirectly paying public funds to religious schools and the program was terminated.

Three families are appealing the case to the Supreme Court to restore the program, claiming the Montana supreme court’s decision violates the free exercise, equal protection, and establishment clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In short, they believe the state is discriminating against their religious freedoms.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue this summer and advocates from both sides of the aisle will eagerly await their ruling. On one side, teachers unions and civil rights groups worry that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinoza, public schools will suffer as money shifts towards religious schools. They believe that a ruling in favor of the Montana parents will violate the Constitution’s principle of separation of church and state, and effectively overturn the 37 state constitutional prohibitions against state funding of religious schools.

On the other side, school choice advocates and the Trump Administration see a ruling in favor of the Montana parents as a win for expanding religious freedoms. We will keep viewers posted when the Supreme Court announces their decision on this important case.

Changes to the School Lunch Program

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, announced new proposed rules to relax regulations from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a major priority of former First Lady Michelle Obama, which directed the USDA to cut salt, sugar, and fat from school meals while promoting whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. USDA previously slowed the implementation of the Obama-era sodium standards and relaxed the standards for whole grains and sweetened milks. Now, the new rules proposed by USDA would allow schools to reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables served at breakfast and lunches and allow schools to serve lunch entrees a la carte, like pizza, burgers, and fries.

The Administration claims the new rules will give schools more flexibility in deciding which fruits and vegetables to serve and to cut down on food waste. But healthy foods advocates think the new rules will result in students eating less nutritious meals. Currently, the USDA administers meals to nearly 30 million students, so any changes to the school breakfast and lunch programs can have a lasting impact on our nation’s young people. The proposed rule is open for comment through March 23rd.

To submit a comment, visit: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FNS-2019-0007-0001

New OPEN Center at the Department of Education

Over at the Department of Education, Secretary DeVos announced the new Outreach, Prevention, Education, and Non-discrimination, or OPEN, Center to be housed in the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR. The Center will focus on proactive compliance with federal civil rights laws. Secretary DeVos elaborated, saying “The OPEN Center underscores OCR’s efforts to support all schools and provide technical assistance to help them come into compliance with federal civil rights laws prior to the filing of a complaint.” The OPEN Center will be staffed by OCR civil rights lawyers and will be led by Christian Corrigan, acting director and senior counsel in OCR.

Read more about the OPEN Center or email the OPEN Center at OPEN@ed.gov.

This blog post represents a slightly edited transcript of the January 27 episode of Federal Flash, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. The video version is embedded below. For an alert when the next episode of Federal Flash is available, email at alliance@all4ed.org.

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