Wednesday, April 06, 2011

SCOTUS: Tax credits for religious schools okay

The US Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by taxpayers in Arizona challenging a state tax credit program that primarily benefits parochial schools. In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said the taxpayers lacked the necessary legal standing to bring their lawsuit.

The action sweeps away a ruling by a federal appeals court panel that had struck down the tax credit program as a violation of the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The majority justices did not directly address the larger constitutional issue. Instead, the 19-page decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy focuses on whether the complaining taxpayers had suffered a direct and personal injury from Arizona’s religious school tax credit program.

Justice Kennedy drew a sharp distinction between government expenditures from the general treasury that directly benefit religion versus tax credits that provide individual citizens an opportunity to decide for themselves whether to direct the credited funds to a religious school.

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute [to the tax credit program], they spend their own money, not money the state has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers,” Kennedy wrote. “Arizona’s [tax credit law] does not extract and spend a conscientious dissenter’s funds in service of an establishment [of religion],” he said. “On the contrary,” Kennedy said, “respondents and other Arizona taxpayers remain free to pay their own tax bills, without contributing to [the religious school tax credit program].”

The decision is important because it signals the intention of five members of the court to enforce a narrow interpretation of when taxpayers may be permitted to file lawsuits seeking to prove the government is engaged in unconstitutional support for or entanglement with religion.

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the decision will make it harder for ordinary citizens to challenge government actions that they feel violate the First Amendment principle of government neutrality concerning religion. “Today’s decision devastates taxpayer standing in establishment clause cases,” Justice Kagan wrote in a 24-page dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. “Appropriations and tax subsidies are readily interchangeable,” Kagan wrote. “What is a cash grant today can be a tax break tomorrow.”

She added: “The court’s opinion thus offers a road map … to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge.”

Supporters of the tax credit program praised the ruling. “Today’s decision marks the fifth time in recent years that the Supreme Court has rebuffed efforts by school choice opponents to use the courts to halt programs that empower families to choose a private school education,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona Chapter of the Institute for Justice.


Detroit goes charter

It's the only thing they had left to try

A bold — for the U.S., anyway — experiment is taking place in Detroit, which recently announced plans to convert nearly a third of its public schools into charter schools as soon as this fall.

Detroit already has a larger percentage of schoolchildren in charter schools than any other city except New Orleans and Washington, D.C. The Big Easy's transition to charters was driven by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina; the District's, by the disaster of the D.C. school system itself. Detroit is moving to charters largely out of fiscal necessity.

Teachers' unions and other usual suspects often object to charter schools on the grounds that they drain money from the public schools — a complaint that overlooks one salient fact: Charter schools are public schools. (Many, however, are not unionized, which does a lot to explain the union objection.) In fact, some school-reform advocates believe they will be the salvation of the public-school system, staving off the voucher campaign and saving public schools from wholesale abandonment.

It's telling that the charter movement has taken off in major urban areas saddled with terrible schools, rather than places — such as Virginia — where the mostly suburban systems meet parents' expectations. A principal reason people flock to the suburbs, of course, is to move to a better school district. If the charter movement can restore big-city school systems to some semblance of health, then they might also bring about what stadium and convention-center projects have not: an urban renaissance.


British school on the verge of a breakdown: Teachers set to walk out over pupil misbehaviour

Teachers at a struggling secondary school will stage a walk-out tomorrow in protest at a wave of verbal and physical assaults from pupils. Staff at Darwen Vale High School voted overwhelmingly to go on strike in protest at the lack of support they say they have received from senior management.

The threat came the day after Education Secretary Michael Gove announced a ‘back to basics’ crackdown on bad behaviour which he said was rife in too many schools.

Yesterday parents told how children at Darwen Vale in Blackburn, Lancashire, had been staging a low-level rebellion, challenging teachers to fights, pushing and shoving them and constantly swearing.

Problems are thought to have begun after the school moved to temporary premises during a £22million rebuild under Labour’s now discredited Building Schools for the Future programme.

Some teachers have allegedly been the subject of malicious allegations by pupils trying to get them suspended, while teenagers have been filming lessons on their mobile phones and threatening to post the footage on the internet.

As a result, lessons are expected to be cancelled tomorrow for all 1,150 pupils as staff form a picket line outside the school’s temporary premises. In a ballot, 95 per cent of the school’s 31 National Union of Teachers members voted in favour of the strike. Two thirds of the 29 members of the National Association of Schoolteachers/Union of Women Teachers also voted to walk out.

Parents said teachers had been complaining of a dramatic deterioration in behaviour and lack of respect since the school moved to near a former council estate. One father said: ‘It’s not the best school and there are a lot of badly behaved pupils. I’m not surprised the teachers are striking – I wouldn’t want their job.’

NAS/UWT Lancashire representative John Girdley said: ‘We sincerely hope that changes can be implemented as a matter of urgency in order to allow the staff of the school to continue to deliver the high standard of education which our pupils deserve.’

But Darwen Vale head teacher Hilary Torpey said the problem had been vastly exaggerated. In a letter to parents, she wrote: ‘It is unfortunate that matters that were being dealt with by the school about appropriate behaviour and ways of managing it have been made public in this way and blown out of all proportion.’

She said the school, which had a ‘good’ pupil behaviour rating following an Ofsted inspection in June, had been revisited by auditors following the claims and they had again been ‘highly complimentary’.

The behaviour at Darwen Vale has a long way to go before it reaches the depths of violence and anarchy that blighted what was dubbed Britain’s worst school.

The Ridings in Halifax gained notoriety in the 1990s amid shocking accounts including a 14-year-old boy fondling a French teacher’s breasts in front of a class. In 1996, teachers voted to strike unless 61 pupils were expelled. Two ‘superheads’ were appointed and they mollified staff by expelling 12 students and suspending 21. By 1998, Ofsted inspectors reported a ‘remarkable transformation’, but the school slipped back into chaos and was closed in 2007.


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