In a twist in the legal battle over school choice, two college students seeking education credentials sued the state of Washington last week for the right to complete their student-teaching requirements at private religious schools. The state prohibits the practice based on state constitutional language barring government aid to religion.
The lawsuit is backed by the Institute for Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that last June helped win the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Cleveland voucher program. The Washington state case is the latest move in the institute’s strategy to try to remove state constitutional roadblocks to vouchers and other forms of school choice. Last month, the institute backed a lawsuit filed in Maine seeking to add religious schools to the choices available to parents in towns without public high schools.
Washington state has no publicly financed voucher program, but the institute still has found what it believes is a way to attack the so-called Blaine amendment in the state’s constitution. At least 37 states have constitutional provisions prohibiting state aid to religious institutions. They are named for U.S. Rep. James G. Blaine, who led a failed effort in the 1870s to add similar language to the U.S. Constitution.
“There really can’t be a serious conversation about vouchers in Washington [state] because of the state’s broad interpretation of its Blaine amendment,” said Clint Bolick, a vice president of the institute. “So removing that obstacle is a precondition.”
Facts of the Case
One plaintiff in the Washington case is Caroline E. Harrison, a veteran teacher at a Roman Catholic elementary school in Tacoma who is seeking a master’s degree in education and an administrative credential from the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus. She says she would like to complete her administrative internship at the school where she teaches.
The other plaintiff is Donnell R. Penhallurick, an undergraduate education student at Eastern Washington University who would like to student teach at a Seventh-Day Adventist school.
Although Ms. Harrison apparently was allowed to do part of her internship at her Catholic school, the two candidates have been told they cannot complete all of their student- teaching requirements at religious schools. A 1995 state attorney general’s opinion said the federal and state constitutions do not allow the practice. A 2000 letter from the attorney general’s office said that even with changes in federal church-state law to that time, the state constitutional provision would still bar the practice.
Washington state Attorney General Christine O. Gregoire and the two universities were named as defendants in the suit.
Gary Larson, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said no one there had seen the suit as of the middle of last week. He admitted that church-state jurisprudence “is in somewhat of a state of flux.”
“We would really need to look at the facts of the case,” he said.