The Supreme Court has wrapped up its spring session, but when the high court comes back in October, it will have a major case to decide that could have enormous ramifications on the state of school choice and religious freedom in this country.
The case before them is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, and the justices will have to decide whether or not Montana was within its constitutional boundaries when it blocked school choice scholarship funds from being funneled into religious institutions of education. Using something called the “Blaine Amendment,” Montana has managed to exclude the vast majority of private schools from benefiting from public funds. The Supreme Court will determine if that rule meets the standards set by the Constitution.
“Petitioners Kendra Espinoza, Jeri Anderson, and Jaime Schaefer are all low-income mothers who were counting on the scholarships to keep their children in Stillwater Christian School, a nondenominational school in Kalispell, Montana,” the petition before the Supreme Court reads. “Although all three receive financial aid from the school, they still struggle to make their monthly tuition payments.
“Petitioners’ stories are not unique,” the case continues. “They echo those of dozens of other families who are relying on the scholarships to make tuition payments, including families living in poverty and those with disabled children.”
Opponents of the Montana funding rule say that if the Supreme Court allows it to stand, religious schools – which make up 67% of the private schools in the state – will remain permanently locked out of the scholarship program. This in turn leads to fewer choices for families that need public assistance in order to afford the tuitions. In effect, it could lead to the virtual elimination of real school choice altogether, forcing many families to accept whatever public school their children are zoned for – regardless of that school’s quality or reputation.
The good bet is that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs, just as they did in a similar case out of Missouri in 2017. Though that ruling was expressly limited to the case before the court, the justices decided in a 7-2 ruling that Missouri could not withhold funds from a Christian church/school’s playground resurfacing project because of the school’s religious teachings. This time around, with a slightly more conservative court hearing the case, we could get a much broader ruling.