Supreme Court’s School-Voucher Decision Could Benefit Many Minority Families

The June 30 decision overturns the longtime prohibition of state-funded scholarships and vouchers for tuition assistance at Catholic and other faith-based schools.

The  Espinoza v. Montana decision is a win for school choice.
The Espinoza v. Montana decision is a win for school choice. (photo: Becket media kit)

Ed Jones grew up in a single-parent home in the segregated South. As a Black child growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, he lived in subsidized, segregated housing. He attended schools with all-Black students. As instructed by his mother and teachers, Jones avoided mingling with whites in the interest of personal safety.

Six decades later, Jones is celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Espinoza v. Montana: He considers it a landmark decision that could end lingering racial, ethnic and socioeconomic school segregation.

The ruling overturns the longtime prohibition of state-funded scholarships and vouchers for tuition assistance at Catholic and other faith-based schools. It negates enforcement of Blaine Amendments contained in the constitutions of 37 states. The amendments prevent any form of government assistance from helping children leave public-attendance centers for private schools with ties to churches or other religious organizations.

School-choice advocates say Blaine Amendments, founded in overt 19th- and 20th-century anti-Catholic discrimination, represent the last vestige of state-sanctioned segregation by prohibiting government efforts to educate low-income children in the same schools as their peers from wealthier households. They say the economic segregation has ethnic and racial ramifications because Black and Hispanic communities comprise a disproportionately high percentage of low-income households.

President Donald Trump, who on June 2 called religious freedom “a moral and national security imperative,” wholeheartedly supported the June 30 Supreme Court ruling.

“States may no longer hide behind rules motivated by insidious bias against Catholics, known as Blaine Amendments, to exclude religious schools from public benefits,” a White House statement said. “The Trump administration believes that school choice is a civil-rights issue and that no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school.” 

“President Trump fights for desegregation by championing school choice,” Jones told the Register.

Additionally, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has stated that “educational freedom” is the top priority of the Department of Education. She told a Register correspondent last year she anticipated the Supreme Court to rule in favor of sectarian scholarships as early as 2020.


Tax-Funded Programs

The ruling means state legislatures and school boards are free to establish tax-funded programs to help poor children attend schools traditionally available only to the children of upper-middle-class and wealthy parents.

In the 5-4 majority ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that Blaine Amendments violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by discriminating against children on a basis of religion. The First Amendment — when combined with the 14th guarantee of equal protection of the law — forbids federal, state and local governments from interfering in religion.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, criticized the Supreme Court for agreeing to hear the Espinoza case. The union said scholarships and vouchers will drain “already scarce resources from the neighborhood public schools.”

For Jones, 78, the Espinoza ruling ranks alongside the court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision set precedent against school segregation by ordering Topeka, Kansas, to allow Linda Brown and other Black students to attend nearby schools reserved for white children. Espinoza, Jones said, could end segregation based on socioeconomic standing.

Jones, a former Republican state senator from Colorado Springs, Colorado, says Blaine Amendments were the last remnant of state-imposed segregation. By preventing equal educational opportunities for the poor, he says the laws held down Black children and other minorities. That’s because economic hardship affects a disproportionately high percentage of Blacks and Hispanics.

“They are disgusting,” Jones said of Blaine Amendments. “Here we are in 2020, and we’re still dealing with segregation and race.”


Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Jones has fought for desegregation since graduating from the all-Black Royal Street High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was 1959, five years past the ruling in Brown, and politicians in his city and state had no intention of obeying the court’s ruling.

Segregation had been part of his everyday life since he was born. His mother, an elementary-school teacher, sat him on a downtown bench when he was a child and told him a parade would pass by. Soon, a group of men marched in white sheets. It was a chapter of the virulently racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan.

“She said those men would attack our house if I drank from the white drinking fountain,” Jones said. “She said they paraded down the street to remind Blacks what would happen if they violated any form of segregation.”

Jones’ crusade for desegregation caught the attention of then-President George W. Bush, a school-choice advocate. Bush invited Jones, then a county commissioner in Colorado Springs, to the White House for two days to participate in a signing ceremony that created a federal holiday for civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Jones believes King is smiling from heaven over the court’s removal of Blaine Amendments because King envisioned a day when Black and white children would join hands as “sisters and brothers” — a reference from King’s famous “I Have a Dream …” speech.

“I know my mother is smiling down,” Jones said.


Not a Quick Cure

Just as the ruling in Brown did not quickly desegregate schools, the Espinoza ruling will not instantly cause educational parity.

“Yes, victims of failing schools just scored a touchdown, but the opponents of educational freedom and opportunity are still on the field, fighting against poor, minority, inner-city, rural kids having access to quality schools,” said Steve Schuck, an advocate of “educational freedom.”

Schuck, a devout Jew, founded Parents Challenge. The national nonprofit provides private resources to assist low-income families in choosing high-performing schools. Schuck uses data to explain the need for low-income families to have the same school options as their wealthier peers.

“Over 50% of America’s public-school students cannot read, write, add and subtract at grade level,” Schuck said. “Terrible, you say? How about 75% of black and brown kids failing to do so?”

For the Espinoza ruling to help children, state and local policymakers will have to establish assistance programs. The ruling, he explained, creates a new opportunity for politicians to run on school-choice platforms.

“School districts are controlled by boards of education that, in turn, are controlled by the unions that elected them and have fealty to their adult members, not to the students,” Schuck said. “What is the antidote? Elect board of education members who will flip the balance of power. … Elect board members whose only agenda is to deliver quality education to all kids. Let freedom ring.”


Douglas County

That’s what voters did in Douglas County, Colorado, where the board of education established a tax-funded scholarship program to help children attend secular and sectarian private schools. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, with the full support of the National Education Association and Colorado Education Association, to enforce the state’s Blaine Amendment.

In court, Harvard-educated historian Charles Glenn explained how the Ku Klux Klan pushed for Blaine Amendments to advance anti-Catholicism and discrimination against immigrants. While public schools turned away immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when states enacted Blaine Amendments, Catholic schools took them in.

The Colorado Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling to enforce the Blaine Amendment and forbid the scholarship program.

The Montana case arose after Kendra Espinoza’s husband abandoned the family. Kendra had to quit home-schooling her two girls to take a full-time job earning meager wages.

She enrolled her daughters in a public school, and things went poorly. Bullies teased one daughter for her overt Christian faith. Faculty allowed widespread profanity in classrooms and hallways. The girls were not learning at a pace that satisfied Kendra, and she said their emotional health was suffering.

So Kendra enrolled her daughters in Stillwater Christian School, in Kalispell, Montana, and struggled to pay tuition. She took extra jobs cleaning homes. One of the girls mowed lawns to assist with tuition.

Concerned about parents in the Espinoza family’s predicament, the Montana Legislature voted for a scholarship program that would give small tax credits to anyone who donated to private scholarship funds. The Montana Department of Revenue sued, with the full support of the teachers’ unions, to enforce the Blaine Amendment. Just as in Colorado, the state courts rejected the scholarship program, and low-income families continued struggling to exercise school choice.


Teachers’ Union Arguments

Teachers’ union officials object to charges by DeVos and others who say traditional public schools fail too many kids.

“NEA has consistently advocated for proven solutions for improving student outcomes in public education,” says a union statement. “This includes providing sufficient resources for neighborhood public schools so that students have inviting classrooms, well-rounded curriculum, small class sizes, and access to health care, nutrition and after-school programs for students who need them.”

Civil-rights activist Bob Woodson, the founder of the Woodson Center in Washington, D.C., begs to differ. He said laws that keep poor children from sectarian schools — which account for most private schools — sustain cycles of poverty in minority communities.

“The great promise of the civil-rights movement was to elect Blacks to positions of power,” said Woodson, who is Black. “Well, most of the urban schools and social-service programs over the past 50 years have been run by Blacks who comprise school boards, city councils, public-housing authorities, hospital boards, you name it, and these kids continue to fail. If race were the culprit, why are poor Blacks failing in systems run by their people?”

At issue, he said, are unions that put the interests of teachers ahead of what’s best for kids. By litigating to enforce Blaine Amendments, he explained, unions protect a monopoly that guarantees most low-income children remain in traditional public schools.

“If you look at Prince George’s County, Maryland, one of the country’s wealthiest enclaves for middle-class Blacks, you’ll see that more than 60% of Catholic-school students are Black,” Woodson explained. “They aren’t going there because these schools are sectarian. They go there because there is a presence of excellence. Middle-class Blacks exercise school choice because they have money, and I support that. But we need to give low-income children the same opportunity.”

Jones concurs.

“This is a great decision,” he said. “It could make a big difference for a lot of underprivileged kids, like the kid I used to be.”

Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.