Divided Supreme Court sides with school-choice advocates

School-choice advocates are claiming victory after a long-awaited U.S. Supreme Court ruling with potential Idaho impacts.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said a Montana state scholarship program must be made available for students in all private schools, including religious schools.

The case — Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue — has broader implications, because it focused the high court’s attention on so-called Blaine Amendments. The amendments prohibit the use of public money to support religious entities, including parochial schools. Idaho is one of about three dozen states with a Blaine Amendment in its Constitution.

“The decision, a victory for conservatives, was the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that the free exercise of religion bars the government from treating religious groups differently from secular ones,” Adam Liptak of the New York Times wrote Tuesday. “It opens the door to more public funding of religious education.”

At issue before the Supreme Court was a Montana program, passed in 2015, which would provide state tax credits to donors who support a private school scholarship fund. When parents tried to use the scholarships for religious schools, the state Supreme Court struck down the program.

“The prohibition before us today burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend or hope to attend them,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote on behalf of the majority.  “Drawing on ‘enduring American tradition,’ we have long recognized the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hailed the ruling.

“Montana and other states should be very clear about this historic decision: your bigoted Blaine Amendments and other restrictions like them are unconstitutional, dead, and buried,” she said in a statement.

The ruling left the court sharply split along ideological lines, and left education groups divided as well.

“The weight that this monumental decision carries is immense, as it’s an extraordinary victory for student achievement, parental control, equality in educational opportunities, and First Amendment rights,” said Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group.

“An extreme Supreme Court just joined the far-right effort to undermine one of our country’s most cherished democratic institutions: public education,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said. “At a time when public schools nationwide already are grappling with protecting and providing for students despite a pandemic and mounting budget shortfalls, the court has made things even worse opening the door for further attacks on state decisions not to fund religious schools.”

In Idaho, the Blaine Amendment has proven to be a daunting hurdle for school-choice leaders. Several attempts to provide tax credits for scholarship programs have failed amidst constitutional questions.

In 2016, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, pushed a constitutional amendment to Idaho’s Blaine Amendment. He said the amendment was designed to allow students at religious colleges to use state-funded scholarships — but he later said his amendment could apply to school vouchers. The amendment stalled in a House committee.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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