Espinoza Is a Boon for School Choice Nationwide

The Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Al Drago/Reuters)
Families will see restrictions on religious educational options for their children lifted.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE Y esterday the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a landmark decision that will allow low-income parents across the country to send their children to private schools with their taxpayer dollars. In a 5–4 ruling, the Court decided in favor of Kendra Espinoza and two other mothers in their case brought by the Institute for Justice (IJ) against the Montana Department of Revenue.

Espinoza is a single mom who has wanted to send her two daughters to a religious school in Montana through the tax-credit scholarship program. Big Sky Scholarships provided families with a tax break if they contributed to charitable organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. The program was initially created to provide students with scholarships to attend any private school.

But soon after Big Sky started, Montana’s Department of Revenue declared that the scholarships could be used only for non-religious private schools. IJ filed this case on behalf of the Montana mom but lost in the Montana supreme court. The court shut down the entire tax-credit scholarship program, arguing that it was unconstitutional because it included religious options for parents and that it would be impossible to separate religious private schools from other private schools in this program.

Yesterday the Supreme Court held that “the application of the no-aid provision discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.” In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts highlights that Montana’s program discriminated against religious schools because of the mere fact that they are religious: “Montana’s no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools. The provision also bars parents who wish to send their children to a religious school from those same benefits, again solely because of the religious character of the school.”

But with the Court ruling in favor of Espinoza, Montana families will be able to use the Big Sky Scholarship program to send their children to private schools, religious or not, which they otherwise could not afford. And even better: This victory reaches much farther than the 559 miles across Montana. It will allow states throughout the U.S. to provide assistance to families for private school through the creation of school-choice programs, including vouchers, tax scholarship programs, and education-savings accounts (ESAs).

Throughout the case, Montana cited its archaic Blaine amendment, which prevented tax dollars from going to schools operated by a “church, sect or denomination” and was originally devised to prevent states from funding Catholic schools. Such laws exist in 37 states. In 13 states, according to IJ, they have been interpreted in a broad sense, as restricting or limiting religious educational options, but now the Court’s ruling sets a clear precedent for other states to follow.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee being the birthplace of school choice, we understand the tremendous opportunity that school choice offers children. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program started in 1990 with just a few hundred students. Today, 28,000 low-income students use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee. Studies have shown that students do better attending private schools on vouchers than they do in traditional public schools.

According to the latest research by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, students in the Milwaukee voucher program score on average 4 percent higher in math and 5 percent higher in reading than their peers in public schools. Religious schools in the MPCP outperform public schools by even higher margins, with Catholic schools outperforming public schools by 8.9 percent in English and 4.1 percent in math when socioeconomic factors are accounted for.

Milwaukee’s program was such a success that Wisconsin began the Racine Parental Choice Program in 2011 and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in 2013. This is why we filed an amicus brief in Espinoza on behalf of former governor Scott Walker, who expanded these programs during his tenure. For Kendra Espinoza, this ruling means she will no longer need to use her nightshift earnings to send her daughters to their Christian school. For many other families, this means that for the first time they will be empowered in their children’s education and can send them to a school that, instead of being their only option, is their choice.

Libby Sobic is the director and legal counsel for education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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