The Supreme Court of the United States opened its term today and will hear arguments at some point in a case that asks if a church-based school can take advantage of a state-funded program that provides recycled tire material for use in the school’s playground.
About 35 state constitutions prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to fund churches or any programs those churches run, including schools. But at the same time, the government can’t discriminate against those schools or the students who decide to attend them. This rule has been enforced, most publicly, with the use of federal funds that benefit programs for disadvantaged or disabled students at religious schools.
Excluding religious schools from federal or state funding may violate the Free Practice Clause in the US Constitution, which is most likely the issue the Court will consider when it hears arguments in this case, known as Trinity Lutheran Church v Pauley.
Playground equipment, it would seem, doesn’t rise to the level of meeting a need or alleviating a discriminatory action. Or does it?
The significance of play in our children’s development—not only in their development of academic skills but also in their development of social, emotional, and artistic lives—is an even more pressing question than the constitutional one. So writes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood development expert and the mother of two artistic children, Kyle and Matt Damon:
Play is an engine driving children to build ideas, learn skills and develop capacities they need in life. … In play children develop problem solving skills, social and emotional awareness, self-regulation, imagination and inner resilience. …
Many urban, low-income children have limited play opportunities outside of school, which makes in-school playtime even more vital for them. But what studies now show is that the children who need play the most in the early years of school get the least. Children in more affluent communities have more classroom play time.
The Supreme Court, of course, doesn’t really put much stock in statistics, particularly in demographic statistics, when deciding the constitutionality of how our tax dollars are spent. But the ramifications of this decision, if the case is decided with an even-numbered supply of justices right now, will affect what kinds of money states can send to private schools. But big-time play advocates and recess-defenders will be watching just as closely as private school advocates.
The question for the Court will be about the Constitution; the question we need to consider in the interest of education is something like this: Is play more like nutrition, which gets funding from tax dollars, even in private schools, or like religious curriculum, which doesn’t get funding? And then, how integral is the choice of playground equipment to the quality of that play? These questions will linger, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.