Our nation’s Founding Fathers had a pluralistic view of K-12 schooling. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling brings the country closer to the original vision of the framers who crafted the federal and early state constitutions, and it helps erase the stain of 19th-century amendments to most state constitutions that were rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry.
The Court’s June 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue overturned a Montana Supreme Court ruling that prohibited using funds from an education tax credit program to attend a religious school.
Nearly 300,000 largely poor and minority students in 18 states currently benefit from education tax credits. Under these programs, the overwhelming majority of which are needs-based, individuals and businesses receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations. They, in turn, award scholarships that students can use to attend the public, private or religious schools of their choice.
“Affluent families already exercise school choice by enrolling in private schools, or simply choosing to live in places with good schools.”
John Adams’ 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which served as the founders’ model for the U.S. Constitution, directed the state to “cherish” education, and clearly envisioned public support for a range of religious and nonsectarian school options.
There is a strong public interest in having an educated citizenry. In America’s decentralized and choice-driven higher-education system — which is the envy of the world — states and the federal government support this goal with scholarships and loans, whether a student chooses to go to the University of Notre Dame, Yeshiva University or a public college or university.
The educationally pluralistic vision of the founders who formed our republic was the norm until the mid-19th century, when the Irish Potato Famine triggered an influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States.
Amid the ensuing nativism and anti-Catholic bigotry of the mid-to-late 1800s, many states adopted so-called Know Nothing, Blaine or anti-aid amendments to their constitutions, which barred public support for the religious schools to which many Irish immigrants sent their children, but which also prohibited funding from following students, as it does in American higher education.
Espinoza helps restore the founders’ view of K-12 education, and Justice Alito’s concurring opinion in particular calls out the history of anti-Catholic bias of Blaine amendments. It’s fitting that the ruling should come in an era when the scourge of nativism is again on the rise across America.
The facts of the case are that Kendra Espinoza, who had suddenly become a single mom, sought a better education for her two daughters. In public schools, one daughter was bullied and the other struggled academically. Both would later thrive using Montana’s education tax credit program to attend Stillwater Christian School.
When the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the tax credit program, Espinoza was denied access to the scholarships her children needed. The basis for the Montana court’s decision was that state’s 130-year-old anti-aid amendment, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as an example of unconstitutional discrimination against families who were receiving scholarships funded by the tax credit to attend religiously affiliated schools.
Affluent families already exercise school choice by enrolling in private schools, or simply choosing to live in places with good schools. Education tax credit programs extend choice to families who can’t afford private schools or to move to a tony community. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling, many more students will be able to reap the same benefits as Kendra Espinoza’s daughters.
While the U.S. Constitution rightly prohibits the government from establishing any religion, it also protects the free exercise of religion. Just as the Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education eliminated the fiction of “separate but equal,” Espinoza re-establishes the founders’ concepts of religious liberty and school choice, which are so central to American constitutionalism.
“Nearly 300,000 largely poor and minority students in 18 states currently benefit from education tax credits.“
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “A state need not subsidize private education. But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
In his famous 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote, “the government of the United States … gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance …”
With its ruling in Espinoza, the U.S. Supreme Court brings us closer to the founders’ original vision of a system that promotes educational pluralism, while neither favoring any one religion nor discriminating against citizens’ birthright to religious liberty.
This op-ed about school choice was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow at the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.