The majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue from Chief Justice Roberts could not be more clear: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” With this ruling, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions were essentially repealed. It’s an unequivocal victory for school choice advocates on the question of who can operate a school with public funding, decidedly in favor of a pluralistic approach.
Research shows that areas with more religious individuals are correlated with greater upward mobility. But the option for some students to attend religious schools is no panacea. As Espinoza forces state policy to become more agnostic on the question of who operates schools, policymakers will have to grapple with how to balance the autonomy of multiple school providers – public and non-public alike – with policies that protect the rights of families and ensure that public funding for education produces adequately educated citizens.
The first question policymakers need to address is that of access: which families have access to which schools through public funding? All students – regardless of where they live – ought to have equal admissions access to publicly funded schools, whether they are operated by a public school district or a religious organization. This principle should be applied to voucher-type programs and public schools alike. Schools across all sectors have a nasty history of excluding poor and Black students, whether through attendance boundaries created to protect affluent white “public” schools or “segregation academies” in the private sector.. Public and private schools alike should embrace the principle that any student is welcome to apply for a fair shot at enrollment, regardless of where they lay down their head at night.
Second, just as families deserve fair access to publicly-funded schools, they should also not be forced to enroll their children at schools they view as harmful. Accordingly, policymakers must ensure that religious schools are not the only option available to families. No family should be effectively required to enroll their child at a school that violates their family’s religious beliefs. This is of greatest concern in rural areas, where the geographic density of students may not support multiple school operators. States could consider population density minimums or market share caps for private school operators to receive public subsidy in a given area. Continue reading