January 28, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher
Lawmakers need regular reminders of their limitations. National School Choice Week, which has been celebrated annually for a decade, should serve to remind them that taxpayers, parents, and families can make choices for themselves and their loved ones without a mandate from their state capitol. Parents know what’s best for their children—and were it not for restrictions on how and where students can learn and prepare for the future, parents would have more freedom to help build an education that’s in their child’s best interest.
A case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court holds two important reminders for everyone—especially policymakers—during School Choice Week in 2020. First, laws should not discriminate against a parent’s deeply held values as families make choices for their child’s education. Second, parents who fought for their right to choose what is best for their student never regret it.
The U.S. Supreme Court launched School Choice Week a few days early when justices heard arguments in Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue on January 22. The case concerns whether Montana families should be allowed to use tax credit scholarships, such as those available in Arizona and Florida, to choose any school—even a religious school—for their child.
At the center of the case are so-called “Blaine Amendments,” state constitutional provisions named for a former U.S. Senator who wanted to prevent Catholic families from creating private schools. Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in the hearing that the amendments are “rooted in grotesque religious bigotry.” Today, nearly 40 state constitutions have such provisions. Over the years, teachers unions and other special interest groups have relied on these provisions in lawsuits that attempt to limit students’ learning options, giving the case national significance.
Despite claims that the case is “about state funding of religious schools,” Montana’s program and other scholarship programs like it provide aid to parents, not directly to schools. The state is not establishing a religion when it treats individual choices equally. Rather, considering persistent achievement gaps around the U.S. and other disparate outcomes among students from different backgrounds, lawmakers should admit they cannot design a system that guarantees equal results and try instead to create one that offers equal opportunities.
Around the country, those with access to educational freedom value the education options available to them because they understand what the Montana families in Espinoza are going through. Andrea Robertson, for one, remembers when Arizona courts considered her daughter’s education options more than a decade ago. Arizona’s teachers union and other special interests tried not once but twice to sue and take learning options away from children with special needs like Andrea’s daughter, Lexi.
Andrea knows the agony of waiting for a court decision. “Having the fate of your children in the hands of anyone, other than yourself, especially the government, is the scariest, most helpless feeling a parent can feel,” she told me recently. “The hair on the back of my neck stands straight up at just the mere thought of revising and placing my mind back to those hearing days.”
Today, Andrea uses an education savings account (ESA) for Lexi and has customized her daughter’s learning experience. “An ESA has empowered me with so much more than just school choice,” Andrea says. “It has given me the power over [Lexi’s] entire day and educational/therapeutic program. She is thriving in ways I never thought possible.”
Because of the determination of parents like Andrea, ESAs are now available in five states, and more than half of all U.S. states have some form of private learning options such as private school scholarships or accounts. Families in Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, to name a few states, along with those in Arizona can empathize with the Montana parents in Espinoza.
So let this National School Choice Week be a reminder that government is not establishing a religion when it respects a parent’s firmly held beliefs. Because we all have values to which we hold strongly, it’s no surprise that once parents are free to make choices for their child according to these mores, they never want to look back.
Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.