Six years ago, I met Erica Smith of the Institute for Justice at a coffee shop in Montana, where I agreed to be the main plaintiff in a lawsuit regarding the use of funds from a credit program. tax for the education of children attending religious schools. Last June, at Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Montana’s highest court and ruled that if parents use program funds to access private education, religious school options cannot be ruled out.
Now the hard work begins. What will states like Massachusetts do to turn the educational opportunity offered by the decision into reality?
Education tax credit programs offer incentives to attract donations to scholarship agencies, which then distribute the money to families to help pay for private and parish school tuition.
When Montana adopted a tax credit program in 2015, I was a new single mom looking for a better education for my daughters. In public school, one girl was bullied and the other struggled with school. Both would later flourish in a religious school. But when the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program, I was denied access to the scholarships my children badly needed.
The Montana court based its ruling on that state’s so-called Blaine Amendment, which prohibited public support for parents in religious schools. Montana is one of 37 states that have made similar changes to their constitutions.
Our nation was founded with a pluralistic vision of K-12 education. There was not to be a state religion, but neither was there a ban on state or local government support for citizens exercising their own religious beliefs. John Adams’ Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and several other early state constitutions clearly envisioned public support for a range of religious, private, and secular school options.
This began to change in the mid-1800s, during a wave of openly anti-Catholic nativism and bigotry in reaction to large numbers of immigrants coming to Massachusetts in the wake of the Irish potato famine. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party made the Commonwealth one of the first states to pass a Proto-Blaine amendment – one of the most restrictive in the country – to prevent money from flowing to Catholic schools where many immigrants Irish sent their children. In his concurring opinion in Espinoza, Judge Samuel Alito told much of Massachusetts legal history that had been included in a Pioneer Institute friend short for the case.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, wrote in the opinion of the majority what we think should be obvious: “A state does not need to subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools just because they are religious.
But the court’s decision does not end this battle; it simply opens a new stage in the struggle for the right of all parents to choose the most appropriate education for their children. Heads of state across the country should take advantage of this landmark move by enacting legislation that makes religious freedom and school choice a reality for millions more families.
Although Espinoza is now the law of the land, there are still legal issues surrounding the choice of religious school in some states, including Massachusetts. An education tax credit program, for example, would allow many more students to attend excellent Commonwealth Catholic schools, which have similar demographics but consistently outperform public schools, despite spending much less. . Amid the pandemic, the number of students attending schools in the Archdiocese of Boston increased by 4,400, while Massachusetts public school enrollment fell by about 37,000.
Before Espinoza, nearly 300,000 largely disadvantaged students in 18 states have benefited from education tax credit programs, the overwhelming majority of which are need-based. Neighbors of New Hampshire and Rhode Island already have school tax credit programs. More than 90 percent of parents of students enrolled in programs of choice say they are satisfied with the programs.
There is a strong public interest in having educated citizens. In America’s world-renowned choice-driven higher education system, states and the federal government support students with scholarships and loans, which they choose to go to Notre Dame, to University. Yeshiva or at a public college or university. With the landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in EspinozaIt is now incumbent on heads of state to act to bring that same excellence and opportunity to K-12 education.
Kendra Espinoza was the main plaintiff in the US Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.