News: CJ Exclusives

U.S. Supreme Court gives school choice supporters a big win

(CJ File Photo By Kari Travis)
(CJ File Photo By Kari Travis)

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a rule banning religious private schools from participating in scholarship programs. 

The decision, released Tuesday, June 30, in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, is a monumental victory for the school choice movement, advocates say. The decision doesn’t affect policies in North Carolina, but it solidifies the state’s Opportunity Scholarship programs and bolsters school choice nationwide. 

SCOTUS in the 5-4 decision ruled Montana violated the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution when it barred parents from using a state scholarship program to send their children to a religious private school. Montana argued the “no-aid” provision in its state constitution prohibited religious schools from receiving public dollars. 

Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed. 

“A State need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, argued the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the scholarship program in its entirety showed the state wasn’t discriminating against religious views. Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling “perverse.”

Montana’s “no-aid” provision, known as a Blaine Amendment, bans public dollars from going to religious private schools.

“Blaine Amendments were an outgrowth of anti-immigrant, predominantly anti-Catholic, sentiment prevalent in the latter half of the 19th century,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “The fact that they were used as a tool to prevent families from accessing public dollars to attend religious schools is by design.”

North Carolina is one of the few states without a Blaine Amendment, which means the decision won’t affect the state’s three private school choice programs.

SCOTUS didn’t invalidate the Blaine Amendment, but it came close, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, a nationwide labor union. The Espinoza ruling opens the door for more lawsuits across the country challenging the provision, she said in a news release.

“At a time when public schools nationwide already are grappling with protecting and providing for students despite a pandemic and mounting budget shortfalls, the court has made things even worse, opening the door for further attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher union.

In North Carolina, school choice critics have argued private school tuition programs, like the Opportunity Scholarships, are siphoning money from traditional public schools.

The matter went to court, where, in 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship program.

Today, more than 12,000 North Carolina students from low-income working-class families have access to the private school of their choice, said Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a nonprofit organization for school choice.

The Espinoza decision further solidifies the right of parents to choose the school that best meets their childrens’ needs, Long said.

“Today is a great day for educational freedom and equal access to educational opportunities for all,” Long said.