A Victory for School Choice

The Supreme Court just delivered a victory for school choice, but only time will tell how much it will affect students across the U.S. 

At the end of June, the high court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that in the case of student scholarships, religious schools are just as entitled to public funding as other private schools. The ruling found that the U.S. Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.”

Starting in 2015, Montanans were able to receive tax breaks by donating to scholarship funds for K-12 students in the state. The program applied to all private schools, religious and nonreligious, until the Montana Department of Revenue declared otherwise. 

The Institute for Justice then filed a lawsuit on behalf of three parents who wanted to use scholarships to send their children to a Christian school, which eventually led to an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court. The law firm called the resulting 5-4 ruling in favor of religious freedom “one of the most important education-reform cases in the past half-century.”

In a Philanthropy Roundtable webinar, IJ’s senior attorney Tim Keller said the decision “really vindicates important constitutional provisions both for religious liberty and for parental liberty. What this decision does is it ensures that the government itself cannot discriminate against religious individuals when they participate in an otherwise generally available government benefit program…. It also is a vindication for parental liberty, because for well over 100 years the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the Constitution protects every parents’ right to direct the education and upbringing of their own children.” 

So, what will this actually mean for school choice in the future? Keller notes that the decision is broad in that it applies to all 50 states—it could have immediate impact on Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, which operate similar programs to Montana’s, excluding religious schools. It is a narrow decision, however, in that it only addresses religious discrimination among private schools. There is still need for reform in many other states and many other program areas where religious institutions are denied the same levels of participation in public undertakings as secular organizations.

Nonetheless, this Supreme Court decision is one that may be built upon in the future to produce important protections for religious liberty in America.

In the same Roundtable webinar, Darla Romfo, president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, described Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue as a “homerun” against anti-religious bigotry. And she noted that removal of barriers to school choice can’t come fast enough, given the covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn—which is causing many private schools to suffer and even shutter themselves, denying children and parents much-needed alternatives.

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