OnlySky Quick Take

Snapshots of major issues

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Even though Christianity and its value system have long dominated this country’s politics, the separation of church and state was one of America’s founding principles. The founders ensured that there would be no official state religion, a choice with long-lasting effects on the country’s future. As the country industrialized and levels of education increased, Americans gradually became more secular.

Nowhere is this more evident than the public school system. In America’s early days, nearly all schools were religious in nature. The U.S. later developed a highly secularized public school system which has effectively kept religion out. Over the past century, religious officials have continually pursued failed legal challenges to push God into public education. But there is one area where religious officials believe they may find success: charter schools.

Charter schools differ from public schools in a few major ways. While both are tuition-free, charter schools operate outside of the local school district and typically do not have contractual agreements with teachers’ unions. This autonomy allows charter schools to run their operations, including their curriculum and finances, as they see fit.

While both parties initially offered some support for charter schools, support now has broken down on partisan lines. Democrats have taken the side of teachers’ unions who have become more outwardly opposed to charter schools. While Republicans have become staunch proponents of school choice and consistently push to increase vouchers for parents to opt out of the traditional public school system. Charter schools receive public funds, which means that their expansion ultimately comes at the expense of public schools.

The growth of charter schools poses a direct threat to public schools, since they are competing for the same resources.

Historically, religion has been outlawed in charter schools since they receive public funds. However, recent legal rulings have paved the way for religious groups to gain more influence within charter schools. The most important recent ruling is Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, in which a Missouri rule banning religious schools from participating in public programs was invalidated. Preston Green, a University of Connecticut professor, believes this could open the door for religious groups to operate charter schools. “Trinity Lutheran opens the door because it states simply that if a religious entity is otherwise qualified to take part in a public benefit program, then it cannot be prohibited solely on the basis of its religious affiliation,” Green said. 

The growth of charter schools poses a direct threat to public schools, since they are competing for the same resources. Charter school enrollment has boomed during the pandemic, increasing by 7.1% between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-2021 school year.

In the coming years, religious groups may gain more influence and control over charter school systems and re-institute religious doctrine in schools funded with public funds. This trend is most likely to accelerate in red states, but suburban and rural areas in blue states are also likely to see increased charter school attendance. This could seriously undermine the separation of church and state and decrease the resources available for public schools to provide a strong education. 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.