Public Dollars for Religious Pre-Schools

HONOLULU (CN) - Hawaii is funding pricey private religious preschools with public money but without oversight, in violation of federal and state law, the American Civil Liberties Union claims in state court.
     The ACLU of Hawaii seeks declaratory judgment and an injunction against Hawaii's Director of Human Services, Patricia McManaman.
     The ACLU claims the state is funneling tax dollars to private preschools with faith-based programs, through a loophole in "interim administrative rules" and its "Preschool Open Doors" program.
     The Preschool Open Doors program was established in 2013 to help subsidize tuition for Hawaii's needy families, who can't afford to send their children to preschool.
     According to the ACLU's complaint: "Given that tuition for preschool in Hawaii averages over $8,000 a year- an insurmountable barrier for many of Hawaii's families - the State of Hawaii should take every lawful measure to ensure that every child in Hawaii has the opportunity to attend preschool regardless of income."
     The ACLU calls the Preschool Open Doors program "commendable": "Research shows that 85 percent of a child's brain develops before age five, and children who attend preschool are more likely to succeed, both academically and socially: they are more likely graduate high school and attend college, and they are less likely to be homeless, commit crimes, or abuse drugs."
     But the ACLU says the program is unconstitutional, as it "places no limits on how a religious institution may spend the public funds it receives; as such, the state directly funnels public funds to religious institutions that embrace non-secular teaching and instruction for preschool children."
     According to the latest report of Hawaii's 410 preschools by PATCH, the nonprofit People Attentive To Children, "a significant number [of them] are preschools that are religious in nature," according to the complaint.
     McManaman's department determines eligibility for the program. If a family is found to be eligible to receive financial assistance for preschool, it may apply the subsidy to a licensed provider or to a license-exempt provider.
     However, as the State of Connecticut requires with a similar program, "It is not enough to allow students or their families to 'opt out' of portions of the program which are religious in nature," the ACLU says.
     The ACLU says that with direct payments made to children's families, or to schools, "there are insufficient restrictions on the use of public funds for religious observances and instruction and/or proselytization."
     This violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the ACLU says.
     The ACLU seeks declaratory judgment that the Preschool Open Doors program, as structured, is unconstitutional, and an injunction with appropriate safeguards to ensure the secular use of public funds in Hawaii's schools. It represented by staff attorney Daniel Gluck.