“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.” With those words, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by four other members of the Supreme Court, gutted the nineteenth-century Blaine Amendments—a legacy of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment from the nineteenth century—still found in 37 state constitutions. Those amendments barred the use of public money for religious schools. With this week’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court leaves it up to individual states to decide if they support private and religious schools directly with taxpayer dollars, grants, and school vouchers, or indirectly, through tuition-tax credits.
Approximately 4 million students across the country attend religious schools, and another 1 million go to private, nonsectarian schools. All these schools serve a “public” function, in that the education they provide is of benefit to a functioning society. Private and religious schools are a small but critical portion of our K-12 educational system, giving families and communities greater choice in schooling. That educational pluralism is an American virtue.
Compulsory education is the public policy through which the government injects itself most directly into family life. Whether we’re raising school-age children or our children are grown, or even if we have no children, we all benefit from the educational well-being of youngsters. Their learning, development of social and intellectual skills, and acclimation to the larger world are all necessary underpinnings of our social, economic, and political system. Schools and parents together produce the nation’s workforce, its scientists and other researchers, and its future political and cultural leaders. This is the true “public” benefit of schooling, but the benefit derives from all schools—those organized into public school districts, public charter schools, and those operated by private or religious organizations. The public benefit of schooling is found not in its governance structure but in its commitment to academic achievement and child development.
The approach of educational pluralism—for which the Espinoza ruling is a boon—is to bind together several important themes: our collective need for an educated citizenry; the rights of families to have some say over the character of any school enterprise; and the religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution. In a pluralistic approach, these themes are not in conflict, but are rather mutually supporting. The state retains the right to promulgate broad curricular guidelines and health and safety regulations; parents have the right to choose what school their children will attend from among public, charter, private, and religious options.
Families for whom religious faith is at the core of their lives are given access to schools that respect their deepest values. In return, they accept that other families make other choices, and they, too, have rights. Most children will attend common district schools, as 90 percent do today. But the values, needs, and choices of other families should not be restricted by the will of the super-majority. Espinoza does not undo the growth of common school districts; it simply allows each state to consider the needs of its citizenry and respond accordingly in the schools that it offers. If change occurs, it will be slow, and it will represent the will of each state.
Even with the Espinoza ruling, the years ahead will be no cakewalk for private and religious schools. In the near term, many private and religious schools face financial emergency due to the economic shutdown associated with Covid-19. Congress is considering emergency aid to K-12 schools, but it should include all schools in that calculus—private and religious schools among them. This should not be a partisan issue; the families of private and religious school students are constituents of blue and red states. California alone has over 500,000 students enrolled in these schools; New York has over 400,000, and Florida near that number; Texas has 270,000.
More states should embrace America’s pluralistic system and extend support to schools that serve their residents’ varying needs. The gratifying Espinoza ruling makes that more likely.