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Supreme Court ruling on Maine's tuition program hands school-choice advocates a win

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, Leila and I spent a little time yesterday morning watching Supreme Court rulings, along with thousands of other people. The court puts rulings on its website after 10 o'clock on certain days, and everybody's watching for big rulings to drop on everything from guns to abortion. Those rulings did not come out yesterday, but others did, and one gave a victory to advocates of school choice. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reads this in.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: By a vote of 6 to 3, the court struck down a state funding system in Maine that was tailored to deal with a particular problem. Maine is the most rural state in the country, so rural that more than half of its school districts do not have a public high school. So the state pays tuition to other districts that do have high schools, as well as to nonsectarian private high schools. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that system is unconstitutional because it leaves out private religious schools. Writing for the court majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that when a state pays tuition to private schools but not religious schools, that amounts to discrimination against religion.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said Maine justifiably seeks to avoid spending taxpayer funds to support what is essentially the teaching and practice of religion, and that need is reinforced by the fact that there are 100 different religions in the United States. Justice Sonia Sotomayor added that the court's decision continues the dismantling of the wall of separation between church and state.

The question now is where the court will stop. Some critics suggest the conservative supermajority is more theocratic than secular and that it is ultimately aiming to require equal taxpayer funding for public and religious schools. Stanford law professor Michael McConnell calls that implausible, but he notes that in the aftermath of COVID-closed classrooms and months of Zoom classes, more parents may be willing to try private schools.

MICHAEL MCCONNELL: Private schools, much more frequently, kept open and did their best to continue to serve the kids during this time. Also, parents got a window into the content of what was being taught, and sometimes they didn't like that. And I do think that this is a moment when the interest in alternatives to the public school system is especially high.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.