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Editor’s note: Montana parent Kendra Espinoza hoped a tax credit would help her pay for a private Christian school for her daughters. But her state’s constitution contains an amendment that bars taxpayer aid to religious institutions. Now, it’s all up to the U.S. Supreme Court as it decides Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. What would a decision in Espinoza’s favor really mean for school choice and public education? The Hechinger Report asked several experts to weigh in. For the perspectives of Rutgers’ Bruce Baker and UConn’s Preston Green, click here. Below, Jonathan Butcher of The Heritage Foundation explores the issue.

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, those who think that more private learning options should be available to families and those who disagree are squinting to see an outcome that — like it or not — immediately shakes up traditional K-12 schools in the United States.

Is change forthcoming? As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

In 2002, the nation’s highest court also considered a challenge to a private-school scholarship program. In that case, concerning K-12 scholarships for children in Ohio, the Court ruled that the scholarships did not violate the U.S. Constitution even though some families sent their children to religious schools.

The court issued its ruling in June 2002, and, two months later on the first day of school, traditional public schools in Ohio opened as usual. The latest data show that per-student spending in Ohio district schools is $13,000, nearly $2,000 more than it was 20 years ago (after adjusting for inflation).

Likewise, in April 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that a private learning option in Arizona could stand, despite a challenge backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure enough, in August of that year, Arizona district schools got to work. A multiyear plan to increase teacher pay is among the highlights of the state’s recent education spending increases.

Related: OPINION: Should plaintiffs in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about school choice be careful what they wish for?

No matter the ruling, the Espinoza decision will not result in the “unraveling” of Montana’s traditional school spending patterns. If the court reinstates Montana’s canceled law offering tax credits worth $150 for contributions to organizations that award scholarships, everyone should expect district schools to reopen in the fall.

The very provisions in Montana’s constitution that led to the Espinoza case — provisions found in dozens of other state constitutions — have their roots in the idea that certain religious teaching is suitable in public schools, while other religious teaching is not. More than a century ago, a U.S. Congressman found support around the country for so-called “Blaine amendments,” which attempted to leave Protestant instruction untouched by preventing Catholic families from starting their own public schools.

Montana’s scholarships, and similar options in other states, do not fund schools but rather provide aid to parents. Parents then choose how best to educate their children. The state is not “establishing” religion (which would violate the U.S. Constitution), but rather lawmakers are giving families more opportunities.

This should be lawmakers’ lodestar: Opportunity.

Despite attempts to equalize funding across U.S. public schools, the addition of any number of social services to district school operations and consistent taxpayer investment in traditional schools, lawmakers have failed to equalize outcomes in K-12 education. Just glance at the stubborn achievement gaps on the Nation’s Report Card or varying high-school graduation rates among students of different ethnicities or family incomes. Children are too different from one to another for policymakers to be able to manufacture results through legislation.

So while public schools may not instantly look different after the Espinoza ruling, lawmakers and taxpayers should see traditional schools differently — not as cogs in a system that taxpayers must pay for while the institutions resist taking positions on values. Instead, a district school is one options that families can choose, along with religious or non-religious private schools and home schooling, or some combination thereof, as they try to help their children succeed.

Related: I got to choose private schools, but will vouchers really help other kids make it?

The late intellectual Sir Roger Vernon Scruton often quoted English writer Matthew Arnold in saying that “freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.” Lawmakers are better at deciding that we must go somewhere, such as school, than at delivering the things we want when we arrive — such as success. 

Espinoza will not unwind public-school spending requirements. But it should offer everyone a different perspective on the government’s role in allowing families to consider what matters to them in their own children’s education.

This story about Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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