School Choice Is the Answer to Education Disputes
As Americans fight a very modern battle over ideological spin in public schools, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case rooted in earlier struggles over lesson content. The justices will decide whether Maine can continue to exclude religious schools from a program that pays private school tuition for students that live in places that don’t have public high schools. Given the court’s recent recognition that such restrictions are historically rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry and unacceptable under the First Amendment, the likely outcome is greater freedom for families to choose education that embodies their values.
In Maine, families living in towns that don’t fund their own high schools can enroll their kids in the public or private schools of their choice with the tuition paid by the home town. One limitation, though, is that the chosen school must be nonreligious for the cost to be reimbursed. Such restrictions (often called “Blaine amendments”) exist in many states and only narrowly failed to take hold in the federal Constitution in 1875. While seemingly intended to reinforce the separation of church and state, they have their roots in a time when public officials sought to prevent the funding of alternatives to Protestant-dominated institutions.
“An effort by Roman Catholics to obtain a share of state educational spending for the network of parochial schools they were developing, in reaction to the overt Protestantism of public schools, served as the impetus for these measures,” Jane G. Rainey, a professor emeritus of political science at Eastern Kentucky University, noted in 2009 for the Free Speech Center’s First Amendment Encyclopedia. Interestingly, the 19th-century restrictions were named after Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, though his own state’s restriction is of more recent vintage.
Blaine amendments survived most challenges until 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on arguments against Montana’s restrictions on religious schools benefiting from a tax credit-funded scholarship program in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. For the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the bigotry behind limits on the participation of religious schools in education choice programs. The court found such restrictions to be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
“A State need not subs
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