The Miami Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools says Catholic education is increasingly in demand in South Florida, now that all K-12 students regardless of income are allowed to use taxpayer-funded programs to pay for private school tuition.

Against the backdrop of favorable decisions by the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court, Florida was among nine states that expanded school voucher programs last year. So many families have signed up for the taxpayer-funded tuition reimbursements, some states are already exceeding their budgets.

Some long-running religious schools are now planning for a fuller future after the wave of policy wins for the so-called school choice movement. Others hope voucher expansion comes to their state.

“We are moving into growth mode,” said Jim Rigg, superintendent of the Miami Archdiocese's 64 schools. Accelerated by the state’s private school scholarship program, enrollment has risen for the last four years, reaching its highest peak in over a decade, he said.

“We are actively discussing new schools, either opened or reopened, over the next several years.”

But using public funds to pay for religious school tuition — especially with generous income limits or none at all — remains controversial as proponents gain ground in Republican-majority states. The movement gained momentum amid fallout from pandemic-era school restrictions, debates on how transgender students should participate in school life, and wars over books and curriculum related to race and LGBTQ+ issues.

More expansion may be ahead as legislatures in a majority of states consider dozens of bills and related court cases carry on. In Tennessee, for example, a Catholic school principal is hoping her students will soon be eligible for the state’s limited program. In California, families are suing because they can’t use available public funds to send their children with disabilities to Jewish schools.

FUNDING DEBATE: MORE OPTIONS VS. CHURCH-STATE ISSUES

Thirty-two states have voucher programs, and some have been in place for decades. Supporters tout funding the student instead of the school, better academic options and more choices for parents who can benefit from taxes they pay. Opponents worry paying for private school tuition leaves less money for programs and teachers for the kids left behind in public school. They say vouchers exacerbate segregation in schools, and they worry about blurring the line between church and state, saying religious schools could discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and others.

“When taxpayer dollars fund religious education, you are forcing taxpayers to support religion and oftentimes a religion that’s not their own,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Her organization is part of a lawsuit trying to stop the nation’s first religious charter school — St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School under the Oklahoma City Archdiocese. She called the rising pro-voucher push just one prong of the Christian nationalist attack on public education.

“That’s antithetical to religious freedom and un-American," Laser said.

Ed Choice President Robert Enlow disagrees: “These are funds given to parents that are neutrally and privately making choices to spend them at nonpublic or religious schools.”

Nearly 80 per cent of private school families choose religious ones, according to P. George Tryfiates, public policy and legal affairs vice president for the Association of Christian Schools International. The association represents about 2,200 U.S. schools.

In a statement, he said Christian schools are, among other things, “a refuge from the cultural wars over sexuality.”

MORE STUDENTS FOR SOME RELIGIOUS SCHOOLS

In central Florida, Mount Dora Christian Academy now has waitlists for nearly every grade, and plans to add more classes, said James Carr, interim president for the 80-year-old Church of Christ-rooted school. State scholarships now make up about half of the US$10 million the school receives for tuition and fees, he said, noting it’s increasing the school’s diversity and affordability.

“The demand now for private education is growing because there is some assistance,” he said.

Due in part to Florida's expanded voucher program, Jewish school enrollment in the state has grown nearly as much in the past two years as in the previous decade, according to a data analysis by Gabe Aaronson, director of Teach Coalition's Office for Jewish Education Research.

In the Miami Archdiocese, more than half the schools have waitlists and one in southern Miami-Dade County has doubled its student body, said Rigg, who credited the scholarship program in part for the growth. Last year, the archdiocese added two high schools; this year, a shuttered elementary school reopened, he said.

Illinois is an outlier. The Democratic-controlled legislature let the state’s income-restricted, tax credit scholarship program expire. The Catholic Chicago Archdiocese cited its demise as part of why two of its suburban schools would close in June.

“Enrollment growth in religious schools is a chief outcome of this expansion of vouchers,” said Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, in an email. “This should be no surprise.”

Religious education advocates were involved in three key Supreme Court rulings that reinforced ways for public funds to flow into private schools, Abrams said, including parochial ones that have otherwise seen declining enrollment and rising tuition. U.S. Catholic school enrollment saw its first increase in 20 years when it rose 3.8% in the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

“Vouchers are a godsend, pardon the pun, for Catholic schools and similar religious schools, even if such vouchers don’t cover all of tuition,” Abrams said.

Teach Coalition, an education advocacy project of the Orthodox Union, believes in strong public school systems alongside strong private schools, said Dan Mitzner, government affairs director for the organization, which advocates for about 90 per cent of Yeshiva and Jewish day school students in the U.S.

“We still believe that public funds in general should not be used for religious purposes,” Mitzner said. “But there’s a way to thread that needle and that’s the space that we operate in.”

JEWISH FAMILIES TURN TO THE COURTS FOR FUNDING HELP:

Teach Coalition is backing a school funding-related religious discrimination lawsuit in California. Chaya Loffman and her husband, and two other Orthodox Jewish families, are suing the state for allowing public student disability funding to be used at secular private schools but not religious ones. They have a religious obligation to send their son, who has autism, to a Jewish school, but doing so has meant forgoing or paying out of pocket for the additional services he needs, she said.

“Religious families and schools should have the same treatment under the law,” said Loffman, represented by religious freedom legal experts at The Becket Fund.

“Ultimately these children with disabilities are losing out and it’s not fair,” she said.

Even with four big fundraisers a year, some families at St. Patrick Catholic School in McEwen, Tennessee, could still use financial help, said Sister Veronica Marie Buckmaster, principal of the rural preK-8 institution that is the oldest Catholic school in the Nashville Diocese.

Expanding the state’s public savings account program, she said, “would greatly relieve the stress on family finances and give parents the freedom to use their tax dollars toward their choice of education for their child.”

Last month, Republican Gov. Bill Lee used his State of the State address to renew his expansion push, which requires legislative action. Bills are being considered this session, but the current program barely passed even with a Republican supermajority.

“The key thing for voters and policymakers to keep in mind regarding this funding of religious education is the absence of much regulation,” said Abrams. He questioned why the U.S. isn't following the lead of some European countries by requiring universal academic standards and discrimination protections at publicly funded private schools.

“More fundamentally, this funding of religious education erodes the common ground that public schools, however imperfectly, have long afforded this country.”