That is a shortsighted handicapping of the court’s landmark Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision. The winners were low-income parents who want the best for their children, and their sons and daughters who might benefit from what wealthier families take for granted: choice in selecting an appropriate school.
The case stems from a dispute about a Montana K-12 scholarship program approved by state lawmakers in 2015 that provided dollar-for-dollar tax credits of up to $150 to those who helped fund scholarships for low-income parents to send their children to private schools. State tax authorities determined that religious schools didn’t qualify. The Montana Supreme Court, citing a state constitutional ban on public funds going to religious institutions, struck down the whole program. Three mothers appealed, including single parent Kendra Espinoza, who struggled to come up with tuition for her two daughters to attend a private Christian school after they had problems in public school.
The 5-to-4 decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. found that Montana’s no-aid provision, similar to that of more than 30 other states, barred religious schools from public benefits solely because of their religious character, running afoul of the First Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion. Under this ruling, no state is obliged to fund religious education; but if it chooses to help support private schools, it can’t discriminate. “A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
We think there is value in, and have supported, programs that — like the one envisioned by Montana lawmakers and D.C.’s successful Opportunity Scholarship Program — help low-income parents afford a choice in their children’s education, a choice that parents empowered with the economic means exercise by moving to a particular school district or sending their children to private school. It is important to remember that the scholarship goes to the child, and that the child’s family then decides which school best meets the needs of individual students. Schools that participate in these programs must meet academic requirements established by the state or locality, and some religiously affiliated schools have proved successful in boosting student achievement, attendance and civic engagement.
Ms. Espinoza chose Stillwater Christian School not because she wanted to advance its interests but because she wanted a school that fit her daughters’ needs and was a place where they could thrive. They — and other students who stand to benefit from opportunities opened up — are the true winners.