The oldest daughter of single mom Kendra Espinoza was being bullied and her youngest daughter was struggling academically at their local public school in Montana. Kendra transferred them to a private Christian school in 2015 where they thrived, but the tuition was a problem. Things eased up considerably, however, when the Montana state legislature enacted a tax credit scholarship program that same year. (This kind of program allows taxpayers to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships for low-income families.) But Espinoza’s good fortune was short-lived because the Montana Supreme Court killed the program in 2018 due to a provision in the state constitution that prohibits religious schools from directly or indirectly receiving state aid.
After a couple of years of legal wrangling, the case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court where, just last week, the Court ruled 5-4 in Espinoza’s favor. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts simply explained, “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.”
There have been several cases that paved the way for this ruling. In the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, SCOTUS ruled that because financial aid goes to parents and not the religious school, vouchers are indeed constitutional. Then, in 2017’s Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, a Missouri church that was operating a daycare and pre-school applied to a state grant program that helps non-profits pay to install rubber playground surfaces. The church’s application was denied because “the state constitution bars the state from providing funds to religious entities.” But Trinity Lutheran pursued the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it prevailed.
The Espinoza decision may once and for all do away with the so-called Blaine Amendments, a variety of which are on the books in 37 states. Named after Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, they came about during a dark period in our history in the 19th century when anti-Catholic bigotry was omnipresent. The Ku Klux Klan and other nativist groups warned of a looming “Catholic Menace.”
School choicers all over the country lauded the Espinoza ruling. In a press release, the American Foundation for Children president John Schilling wrote, “Today is a good day for children and families in Montana and a historic day for our country. Every child, regardless of income, deserves high-quality educational options. The Court rightly recognized the discriminatory nature of state Blaine amendments, and they’ve once again affirmed the constitutionality of school choice programs.”
While many saw the judgment as a great victory for children and families, the joy was not universal. Unsurprisingly, the teachers unions have been leading the grinch-charge. American Federation of Teachers president and Pearl-Clutcher-in-Chief Randi Weingarten said in a statement, “Never in more than two centuries of American history has the free exercise clause of the First Amendment been wielded as a weapon to defund and dismantle public education. It will hurt both the 90 percent of students who attend neighborhood public schools, by siphoning off needed funds, and, in the long term, those who attend religious schools, by curtailing their freedom with the accountability that comes with tax dollars.”
“Defund and dismantle public education?” Huh?!
Weingarten went on to defend the Blaine Amendments, and then gratuitously attacked President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for being part of a cabal that is “turning the First Amendment on its head.”
The National Education Association has been no less huffy about the judgment. The union defended the Blaine Amendments and accused SCOTUS of allying itself “with the far-right school privatization agenda by sanctioning the use of public funds for private school tuition.“
In addition to the teachers unions, much of the mainstream media have been negative on the ruling. The Los Angeles Times, for example, accused the Court of making the “wrong call” and suggested that “we believe that state financial resources should be directed toward underfunded public schools.” I guess the newspaper doesn’t think that the $700 billion a year we currently spend is enough.
The Washington Post, to its credit, strongly supported the 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.”
(To the unions and MSM, I have a question that I’ve been asking for years, but have never received a response to. While you despise any public money going to a parent who wants to send their child to a private school, you praise Pell Grants. These federal dollars go to needy college students and can be used to attend private colleges, including religious schools like Notre Dame and Brigham Young. But on the k-12 level, giving parents choices – vouchers, education savings accounts, etc., especially if used at a religious school – is your worst nightmare. Why is the private option perfectly okay for college students, but not elementary and high schoolers?)
In his concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote “The feelings of the day are perhaps best encapsulated by this famous cartoon, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1871, which depicts Catholic priests as crocodiles slithering hungrily toward American children as a public school crumbles in the background.”
The year of 2020 will go down in history as a memorable one for our country. Covid-19 has been a disruption of monstrous proportions. Additionally, we are experiencing a turbulent political scene reminiscent of 1968. And now Randi Weingarten is making common cause with the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-immigrant groups.
And the year is only half over.