POLITICO's Morning Education: Supreme Court could clear roadblocks to school vouchers — Advocacy groups seek meeting with DeVos on Title IX — Analysis: Billions of federal dollars fund poor-performing colleges

By Michael Stratford | 04/18/2017 10:00 AM EDT

With help from Caitlin Emma and Benjamin Wermund

SUPREME COURT COULD CLEAR ROADBLOCKS TO SCHOOL VOUCHERS: The Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear a case that could have huge implications for school voucher programs. At issue is an 1875 provision of Missouri's Constitution banning public money from going "directly or indirectly" to religious groups, including schools. Similar provisions, called Blaine Amendments, exist in roughly three dozen states and have been a major barrier to school vouchers. They've also proved resilient, surviving numerous state ballot repeal efforts - including an unsuccessful Michigan initiative pushed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos nearly two decades ago.

- Religious groups see this and a related Colorado case as their best shots at scrapping the amendments - and they believe Neil Gorsuch, who just took his seat on the high court, will take their side. They point to Gorsuch's deference to religious rights in other cases. Most notably, while on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, he backed a religious challenge to the Affordable Care Act - joining the panel's majority in the Hobby Lobby case to rule that the Obama administration could not require a closely-held business to offer contraceptive coverage if that interfered with the owners' religious beliefs - a decision later upheld by the Supreme Court. In another case, he ruled that a Wyoming prison had to provide a sweat lodge to a Native American for his religious practices.

- Court watchers believe Gorsuch might cast a tie-breaking vote since the court had apparently delayed arguments in the Missouri case until they had a ninth justice. "The justices have likely seen this as a case on which they would have been divided four to four," said Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University. "They must expect that Gorsuch will be the deciding fifth vote." Benjamin Wermund has more on that here.

- There is a chance the case could get tossed out . The case hinges on the state's denial of Trinity Lutheran Church's request for a grant to reimburse the cost of resurfacing its preschool playground with recycled tires. State officials said the Blaine Amendment prevented it from aiding the church in any way. But late last week, Missouri's newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, announced that he has directed the state agency to consider religious organizations for such grants. The parties on both sides must submit their views by noon today on whether the the announcement makes the legal dispute moot. Even if the justices dismiss this case, they could soon hear the same issues in a pending Colorado case in which the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State claim a school voucher program violates the state's no-aid clause.

GOOD TUESDAY MORNING AND WELCOME TO MORNING EDUCATION. Your humble Morning Ed host is turning a year older today. Drop me a line with your life advice and words of wisdom: mstratford@politico.com or @mstratford. Share event listings: educalendar@politicopro.com. And follow us on Twitter: @Morning_Edu and @POLITICOPro.

ADVOCACY GROUPS ASK DEVOS FOR MEETING ON TITLE IX: Women's advocacy groups are asking to sit down with DeVos to discuss the agency's policies on campus sexual assault. They say they are alarmed by her meeting last week with a Georgia lawmaker who is suing the department over its Obama-era guidance on handling campus assault claims. "We urge you to meet with student survivors, Title IX experts, and allied organizations and to avoid the cruel politicization of victims' rights," says a letter sent to DeVos on Monday and signed by the National Women's Law Center, American Association of University Women, Know Your IX and others. "In light of your meeting with a person who has been so openly hostile to Title IX, equality, and victims' rights, survivors and their advocates are even more eager to meet with you." Read the letter here.

- DeVos appears to be weighing the department's controversial, 2011 guidance to colleges on campus sexual assault . During the Obama administration, the department issued a "Dear Colleague" letter that told colleges that Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, requires them to combat sexual violence and protect survivors of sexual assault. Advocates praised the letter as a crucial step in cracking down on a perceived epidemic of campus sexual violence. But critics - among them, conservatives and some higher education, civil liberties and lawyer groups - were alarmed that administrators were urged to use a lower standard of proof in disciplinary hearings than what is used in criminal trials. DeVos would not commit to keeping the guidance in place during her confirmation hearing. The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.

ON DEVOS'S SCHEDULE TODAY: The secretary is slated to travel with President Donald Trump today as he heads to Kenosha, Wisc. to discuss manufacturing jobs. Trump plans to visit Snap-On Tools, which Press Secretary Sean Spicer said was "a prime example of a company that builds American-made tools with American workers for U.S. taxpayers." Trump will be speaking at 2 p.m. Central time.

A LOOK AT NEXT YEAR'S STUDENT AID FORM: The Education Department on Monday posted a draft version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the 2018-19 academic year. The department is soliciting public comment for the next 60 days on the form, which will be available for students starting on Oct. 1. Most of the changes from last year's version appear to be minor or technical. The most critical include tweaks to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool "to enhance the privacy of applicant and parent IRS tax return information." The department also plans to allow families who filed an amended tax return to use the tool, which has been suspended since March when federal officials discovered that identify thieves had used it to file fraudulent tax returns.

- The Education Department also plans, at some point during the next school year, to update the online version of the FAFSA with a design that will make it more user-friendly to students accessing the form on mobile devices. The department also plans to integrate the FAFSA with the College Scorecard, the trove of data about colleges that the Obama administration first released in 2015. Read more about the changes here.

ANALYSIS: BILLIONS OF FEDERAL DOLLARS FUND POOR-PERFORMING COLLEGES: The centrist think tank Third Way is out with a Tax Day report that shows that billions of taxpayer dollars are flowing to colleges that perform poorly on federal metrics that measure graduation, post-college earnings and student loan repayment. The analysis by Michael Itzkowitz finds that last year, taxpayers sent $3 billion in grants and loans to colleges that have graduation rates below 10 percent. (The federal graduation rate measures only first-time college students who are attending full-time; it excludes transfer students, for instance). In addition, more than $15 billion flowed to colleges where only 25 percent of former students had made any progress in repaying their loans three years after leaving. Read the full analysis here.

REPORT LOOKS AT CHARTER SCHOOL RISK FACTORS: One sign that a proposed charter school might be at risk of failure before even opening its doors: It promises to serve at-risk students without outlining sufficient academic supports, such as individual tutoring or intensive small group instruction. That's according to a new report from the conservative think tank, the Fordham Institute. Another red flag: when charter applications propose a self-managed school without identifying school leadership. Fordham said it reviewed 600 charter school applications and found a few risk factors. Read the report.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS

- Amy Wilkins has joined the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as senior vice president of advocacy. Wilkins most recently worked at The College Board and The Education Trust.

REPORT ROLL CALL

- Though children enjoy math and science, parents tend to think those subjects are less important than reading and writing, a new survey by the Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation found.

SYLLABUS

- Houston school district to pay $300K for special ed audit: The Associated Press.

- Will Texas voucher defeat hurt state school finance fix? The Associated Press.

- Cornell faculty fear "chilling effect" after university charges student with sharing documents with student newspaper: The Cornell Daily Sun.

- Texas Board of Education will consider revising science standards as some educators push to remove controversial requirements like teaching creationism: Houston Public Media.

- Why a key piece of legislation to fund Colorado schools is on hold: Chalkbeat.

Surprise, Surprise. Follow the Pro Education team: @caitlinzemma (cemma@politico.com), @khefling (khefling@politico.com), @mstratford (mstratford@politico.com ) and @BenjaminEW (bwermund@politico.com).

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