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An opinion from the attorney general muddies constitutional principles that prohibit public funds for private schools.
Photo/Alan Kim, shot 8/5/2004 Row of Montgomery County Schools buses in Cambria.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
The homeowners of Pittsylvania County or any other community would surely object if they were asked to foot the bill for security guards at the local Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant or Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor.
But the Office of Attorney General has advised the Pittsylvania sheriff his county can underwrite resource officers at private schools, including those with a religious affiliation.
The opinion, issued in July and signed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was in response to a request for information from Sheriff Michael Taylor. It states that local governments have broad authority under their police powers to ensure public safety, concluding that “it is reasonable to anticipate that local governments may provide funding for law-enforcement positions to be assigned the duties of school resource officers in private as well as public schools located within their jurisdiction, so as to provide for the safety of all children attending school within their jurisdiction.”
The opinion is advisory, but it creates confusion. The state constitution prohibits use of public funds for “any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the state or some political subdivision.” There are narrow exemptions for multi-state initiatives and nonsectarian technical training facilities.
The AG’s opinion tries to sidestep the issue by warning that state grants cannot be used to pay for security at private schools. The General Assembly this year budgeted $1.3 million to fund resource officers in 42 public schools. There’s little reason to anticipate that supervisors and city councils, beset with deep state cuts in public education funding, will rush to raise real estate taxes to protect private schools.
Given the lack of a pressing need to change the rules, why would Cuccinelli muddy the issue? Because he wants to change the rules. He has promised if he’s elected governor to pursue a constitutional amendment allowing public aid to religious schools. But there’s no guarantee that state lawmakers and voters will support a change in the current policy, which has served the commonwealth well for many years. It’s contradictory and disruptive to start trying to carve out exceptions before that debate has occurred.
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