State Policy Network
Landmark Espinoza ruling provides families in 37 states with more K-12 education options

In a significant victory for thousands of students and their families, the US Supreme Court ruled states cannot exclude religious schools from school choice programs. The ruling comes at an important time when many families are weighing their options for the upcoming school year. As schools have struggled with online learning and consider a mix of options, more than 67 percent of parents with K-12 children in school are considering changes to their child’s future schooling.

The momentous education case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, resulted in a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that states banning religious schools from school choice programs is a violation of freedom of religion secured by the First Amendment.

The Institute for Justice (IJ) represented the lead plaintiff in the case, Kendra Espinoza, a single mother who was able to send her two daughters to Stillwater Christian School thanks to Montana’s tax credit scholarship program. Enacted in 2015, the program offers tax credits up to $150 for donations to organizations that provide K-12 scholarships. In 2017, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the program, arguing the program violated of Montana’s Blaine Amendment.

Kendra Espinoza and her two daughters
Photo Credit: Institute for Justice

Supreme Court rules Blaine Amendments a violation of religious liberty

Blaine Amendments were named after Maine Representative James G. Blaine, who offered an amendment to the US Constitution in 1875 that would have banned funds going to schools “under the control of any religious sect.” Blaine’s amendment wasn’t adopted, but Congress required all new states to incorporate a version of the amendment in their constitutions. Montana is one of nearly 40 states that have these anti-aid amendments on the books.

Montana invoked the Blaine Amendment as the reason Kendra Espinoza could no longer use the tax credit program to send her children to a religious school. IJ sued on behalf of Espinoza in 2017, and the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the entire tax credit program was unconstitutional. Espinoza appealed, and today the US Supreme Court ruled Montana’s application of the Blaine amendment discriminated against religious schools, a violation of the free-exercise clause of the US Constitution.

What Espinoza means for families and students

Many American families seek better education options for their children so that they can thrive in an educational program and setting that truly fits their needs. School choice programs empower parents to choose the best type of education for their child. Over 250,000 students benefit from private-school choice through education tax credits, and many of them are minority students or students struggling with poverty. With this ruling, thousands more will have access to these opportunities.

The decision is also beneficial for families in light of the education shifts related to the pandemic. As coronavirus has forced schools to close or adjust how they operate, many parents are indicating greater interest in changes to their children’s schooling. In fact, a majority of parents are already considering education options for the 2020-2021 school year, and this decision widens the institutions and financial resources parents will be able to access as they make their choices.

50-state Network champions educational opportunity across the states

For years, SPN members have worked to expand education options for students so they can receive the quality education that they deserve. Several state think tanks, including the Pioneer Institute, Mackinac Center, and Independence Institute, have been raising awareness about the Espinoza case and what it could mean for families in their communities. Through amicus briefs, research, events, videos, op-eds, and other media outreach, SPN members demonstrated how their state’s Blaine Amendment limits education choice.

Pam Benigno, director of the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute, observed: “For more than three decades, the Independence Institute has held that Colorado’s Blaine clause should not preclude parents from choosing a religious school when participating in a school choice program. We are elated that the US Supreme Court has finally settled the debate in favor of parental choice!” 

The Mackinac Center’s Director of Education Policy, Ben DeGrow, added: “It’s very gratifying to see this long-awaited ruling come down, one that will make a significant difference in many states for families who seek quality educational options for their children. While the Espinoza victory does not bring a direct benefit to Michigan families, we look forward to the next legal steps that ultimately ensures students in our state aren’t left behind.”

“Today’s win is a victory for families and students,” said Katherine Bathgate, senior policy advisor at State Policy Network. “For years, too many states have been blocked from advancing proven school choice programs because of Blaine Amendments. Now that the barrier has been torn down, state think tanks and other like-minded allies across the country must come together to advance school choice so that the promise of today’s decision reaches as many students and families as possible. We congratulate our colleagues at Institute for Justice on this historic win and look forward to working with them and others on the important next steps of implementing and executing this landmark decision.“

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