Supreme Court must keep states from robbing parents of school choice

Aaron Schwartz

The nation’s 10th annual celebration of educational opportunity comes on the heels of a landmark case that could permanently shake up the school landscape.

The U.S. Supreme Court today is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The court session comes just days before National School Choice Week kicks off a host of festivities that recognize families’ access to different learning options.

Single mother Kendra Espinoza was seeking a new option. She wanted to use a tax credit-funded scholarship to free her daughters from school bullies, lackluster academics and a school culture with values that contradicted her own. But a Montana state agency, and ultimately the Montana Supreme Court, said she couldn’t use that scholarship at the Christian school that was serving her children well. With help from the Institute for Justice, she persuaded the nation’s highest court to hear her challenge.

At issue is whether timeworn relics of bigotry in many state constitutions can limit parents’ ability to choose the right school for their children. Most of these constitutional relics, present in 37 states, are known as Blaine amendments, birthed in the late 1800s out of a movement of religious-based fearmongering. These amendments limited public aid for schooling to the Protestant-majority public schools, while denying it to “sectarian” (read: Catholic) alternatives. 

Michigan owns the latest and most stringent of the anti-aid amendments, adopted by referendum in 1970. Its underlying bigotry is just as real as those with older provisions, though it’s harder to see in its carefully crafted language. For nearly 50 years, opponents of public aid — which they dub “parochiaid” to disparage Catholic schooling — have wielded this amendment to thwart attempts at giving parents greater educational choice. 

The unfortunate irony is that no place in the United States needs quality educational options more than Michigan’s largest city. The Detroit school district has finished last among large cities on all math and reading tests on the nation’s report card five times running. Some charter public schools are making a real positive difference, but the need remains great. National surveys show far more parents want to pursue private education than currently are able to do so.

When families can get access to private schooling, they benefit. Dolores Perales, for example, grew up in southwest Detroit. Her father never completed high school and her mother never entered college. But they both believe in the power of education for Perales and her three younger brothers. All of them have been able to attend Detroit Cristo Rey High School, part of a national Catholic school network geared toward serving low-income families with a combination of rigorous college prep coursework and a corporate work-study program.

“Without Cristo Rey, I don’t think I would have been able to succeed the way that I have,” Perales said. She finished at the top of her class, and with the caring support of faculty and staff, found the confidence to pursue higher education. Last year she received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University in environmental science and moved on to graduate school. Her brother, Christian, is a sophomore at Cornell University. A friend of his missed out on Cristo Rey, dropped out of high school and ended up on a different path.

Many states, including some with Blaine amendments, have embraced scholarship programs that help eligible students enter a private school of their choice. Publicly funded scholarships helped both Ohio’s Walter Blanks and North Carolina’s Amoree Brown escape failing schools and thrive in new learning environments. 

Exactly one week after the Supreme Court hears the Espinoza case, students, parents and educators will gather, under the National School Choice Week banner, in state capitols and elsewhere. They will celebrate the opportunities they have had to benefit from home education, charter schools, virtual schools, district schools and nonpublic schools. But looming in the background will be the quiet hope for more scholarships, which could help families reach schools they desire, if only they had more money or could make extraordinary sacrifices.

A favorable ruling this summer would remove the last major legal obstacle used to try to rob parents such as Kendra Espinoza from exercising educational choice, which they desperately need. We can only hope she and millions of others will be able to join the Perales family in forging educational paths that give their children the best chance to succeed. 

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Tags Blaine Amendment Kendra Espinoza National School Choice Week Private school School choice

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