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Supreme Court Stands up for Educational Opportunity in Montana

June 30, 2020

June 30, 2020
by Matt Beienburg

The Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue delivered a major victory for parents and students. Perhaps just as importantly, it rejects the increasing foolishness of those willing to sacrifice students’ educational opportunity to the altar of educational sameness.

In 2015, Montana joined the ranks of nearly 20 other states when its legislature created a tax credit scholarship program to help students access private education.  These programs have allowed taxpayers to support educational models outside the monolithic—and largely union-controlled–public school systems.  But more significantly, they have directly benefitted many of the most at-risk students in America: As the left-leaning Urban Institute found in 2019, for example, “the country’s largest private school choice program [the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program], which enrolls largely low-income students from low-income schools, has a positive effect on college-going and graduation rates.”

Despite the empirical benefits of such programs, however, Montana’s initiative was cut down in its infancy. Opponents had argued that by allowing scholarship funds to be used by students at private schools—both secular and religious—the program violated a state ban on aid to religiously affiliated schools. The state Supreme Court concurred, deciding that the best course of action was to completely dismantle the program for all students rather than risk letting some families choose to use their funds at religiously affiliated schools.

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of this decision, “seeing no other ‘mechanism’ to make absolutely sure that religious schools received no aid, the court chose to invalidate the entire program…to the detriment of religious and non-religious schools alike.”

Thanks to the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court and the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution, however, this decision has been struck down, freeing Montana—and likely a host of other states—to enact school choice programs without discriminating against one form of education over another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision has already sparked outrage from union interest groups like the National Education Association, which decried it as “a scheme to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to religious and private schools” that “undermines one of our country’s most cherished democratic institutions: public education.”  

But one can’t help wondering whether the union’s logic and full-throated condemnation would have applied to similar efforts to serve freed slaves in the 1860s:  As Justice Roberts observed, “After the Civil War, Congress spent large sums on education for emancipated freedmen, often by supporting denominational schools in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau.”

Indeed, as the court observed, “In the founding era and the early 19th century, [local] governments provided financial support to private schools, including denominational ones.”  Now, as individual student needs warrant more—not fewer—educational options than ever before, policymakers and the public should welcome families’ freedom to pursue the avenues best suited to their unique circumstances.

To that end, states like Arizona have spent years leading the charge, ensuring that parents have the freedom to choosethe schooling option right for their kids. Whether among traditional district schools, public charter schools, private tax credit scholarships, or flexible education savings accounts (ESAs), our families have come to enjoy extraordinary opportunity and empowerment.  Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza, those freedoms may at last find their way to families in Montana and elsewhere around the country.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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