On Private Schools and Discrimination: Response to Hechinger Report Editorial Note


Original Op Ed (in response to this post, a new note has been added to our op ed and the original offending note removed)

Preston C. Green III

I am writing this post to alert my fellow professors about a situation I recently encountered after publishing a piece with the Hechinger Institute. This organization approached Bruce Baker and me to write an op-ed explaining the possible consequences of the Espinoza v. Montana State Department of Revenue case. In this case, the Supreme Court is considering whether states can prohibit parochial schools from participating in a tax-credit scholarship program. It is generally expected that the Court will hold that states cannot act in this manner.

In this op-ed, we explained that states might respond to this potential decision by placing curricular restrictions on participating schools or even refusing to fund private education altogether. We even posited that states might respond to the Court’s expected decision by dramatically reducing their investment in charter schools.

We did not get much pushback for these points in the op-ed. However, Corey DeAngelis, adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, claimed on Twitter that we were wrong to suggest that parochial school participants in school voucher programs might even consider discrimination on the basis of race. He supported this assertion by citing a Supreme Court case, Runyon v. McCrary. DeAngelis posted a screenshot of the purported holding, which he got from Wikipedia. According to this summation, Runyon held that “[f]ederal law prohibits private schools from discriminating on the basis of race.” On the basis of this “evidence,” DeAngelis demanded that Hechinger correct this alleged error.

I responded on Twitter by posting a screenshot of the pertinent part of the actual case, which included the following statement (italics added):

It is worth noting at the outset some of the questions that these cases do not present. They do not present any question of the right of a private social organization to limit its membership on racial or any other grounds. They do not present any question of the right of a private school to limit its student body to boys, to girls, or to adherents of a particular religious faith, since 42 U.S.C. § 1981 is in no way addressed to such categories of selectivity. They do not even present the application of § 1981 to private sectarian schools that practice Racial Exclusion on religious grounds. Rather, these cases present only two basic questions: whether § 1981 prohibits private, commercially operated, nonsectarian schools from denying admission to prospective students because they are Negroes, and, if so, whether that federal law is constitutional as so applied.

The italicized section clearly established that the Court in Runyon did not address the question of whether § 1981 prohibited sectarian schools from racially discriminating on the basis of religious belief.

DeAngelis insisted that a retraction was in order reposting the Wikipedia screenshot and claiming that parochial schools would never discriminate because they might lose their tax-exempt status. Other people joined in on Twitter claiming that we were fearmongering because no school would ever consider discriminating on the basis of race for religious reasons – the stakes were too high.

Although I would like to believe we are past the time that schools would not overtly try to discriminate on the basis of race, I do not share this rosy view. My parents received part of their education in racially segregated public schools in Virginia. And although I did not attend a racially segregated school, I also experienced several incidents of overt discrimination.

The Hechinger editor asked Bruce Baker and me over email about the Twitter avalanche from DeAngelis and his supporters. I explained that DeAngelis’s understanding of Runyon was incorrect. The Court’s decision expressly did not address the legality of parochial schools claiming racial discrimination on the basis of religious belief. I even cited cases in which parochial schools attempted to exploit this loophole in Runyon (the courts rejected this assertion on the ground that the discrimination was not based on sincere religious belief).

Two days later, our editor emailed Bruce Baker and me again, explaining that her superiors wanted to place a note after the offending sentence to the effect that racial discrimination violated federal law. We responded by explaining that this statement was overly broad. It was true that parochial schools that discriminated on the basis of race ran the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. It was also true that a parochial school that discriminated on the basis of race ran the risk of losing its federal funding (if it received such aid). However, it was false to assert that federal law explicitly prohibited parochial schools from racially discriminating in their admissions. To summarize our position: While it was unlikely that a parochial school would discriminate on the basis of race in its admissions policy, federal law did not explicitly prohibit it.

Our editor then responded by suggesting an editors’ note that federal law made it unlikely for a parochial school to discriminate on the basis of race. I agreed to that parenthetical statement.

To our surprise, the following day, we received an email from the editor telling us that her superiors had overruled her. The overly broad editors’ note was back in. We were also told that there was nothing we could do about it. We have yet to hear any convincing explanation why Hechinger rejected our reasoning regarding this legal issue.

I am disappointed and, frankly, outraged, that Hechinger acted in this manner. When DeAngelis challenged our assertions, we cogently explained why we believed he was wrong. Yet Hechinger did not support the well-reasoned legal opinion of two scholars in the field it had specifically asked to research this issue. Instead, it bowed to online pressure even after we had spent more time providing additional background and case law. Other professors should consider our experience if Hechinger approaches them for an op-ed.

Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

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