Many public schools remained shuttered to in-person learning for more than a year, leaving parents with few options – especially if they couldn’t afford private schools that were much more likely to keep their classrooms open during the pandemic.
The frustration that ensued from parents juggling work and their children’s learning, as well as the depression many students suffered while being stuck at home, spurred an explosion of school choice initiatives around the country.
In 2021, more than 20 states created or expanded these programs, including education savings accounts or tax credit scholarship programs that can be used at private schools.
A new decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will surely add to this momentum. In a 6-3 ruling in Carson v. Makin on Tuesday, the court once again sided strongly with both school choice and religious freedom.
This case, out of Maine, had many similarities with the 2020 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue decision. It found that the government could not prevent parents from choosing religious schools within a private educational choice program, and that discrimination based on the faith “status” of a school violates the First Amendment.
Maine had attempted to bypass that ruling by drawing a convoluted distinction between “status” and “use” – saying it didn’t want taxpayer dollars going to religious instruction. The state grants tuition assistance to families who live in rural areas without a public school so students can attend either a nearby district or a private school, but it stopped short of allowing parents to choose sectarian schools.
Since faith-based schools are going to integrate religion into their curriculum, this was a flimsy argument.
“There is nothing neutral about Maine’s program,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion. “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools – so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A State’s anti-establishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”