On June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court released its decision in ESPINOZA ET AL. v. MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE ET AL. The case has important implications for school choice, educational tax credits, and the separation of church and state.
A Brief Synopsis of the Case
In 2015, the Montana Legislature extended up to $150 in tax credits to any tax payer who donated to a student scholarship organization (aka Big Sky Scholarships). Families with financial hardships or children with handicaps could apply for a Big Sky Scholarship and designate a private school of choice to which Big Sky would directly send (publicly subsidized) funding. Thirteen private schools received funding and twelve of those were religious schools. Because the Montana constitution bars any “direct or indirect” aid to schools “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination” the State Supreme Court invalidated the program.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the State Supreme Court decision, ruling that the Montana Supreme Court discriminated against the parents and schools based on religion, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment. According to Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority decision, “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.”
This case has sweeping implications; 29 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico provide educational tax credits or vouchers. Going forward, these states and any other state that provides an educational tax credit is compelled to subsidize religious schools— even if the state constitution expressly forbids it.
With this ruling, the conservatives on the Supreme Court have clearly signaled the future for the public funding of religious schools and, we should expect more rulings that further erode the separation of church and state.
It is pretty much given that an overwhelming number of us have been touched by COVID-19 and by the recent demands for action on social justice in America. With masks in place, many have marched in cities and neighborhoods for justice, and worried about our children who are marching. At home, many dining room tables are now home offices, with parents vying for internet time with their kids. In place of face-to-face interactions, learning has moved online, graduation ceremonies postponed or virtual. Millions of workers have lost jobs and businesses have closed. Countless elders are isolated and alone in senior care homes. We all feel the impacts.
I recently spent a weekend with about 20 people who are all feeling their own set of impacts. Each of them has passed all the prerequisites for a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and are all starting dissertations. And, they too are feeling the impact. Some planned dissertations based on classroom observations, but now they have no classrooms to observe. Some had detailed plans for interviews with educational leaders, but now interviews must be rethought. Others had planned up-close observations of educators, but there is no up-close now. Some have had to rethink basic assumptions about the role of education in a just society.
At the same time, many of these students are having to quickly adapt in other parts of their lives, perhaps learning to teach or otherwise work on line. Perhaps they spend most of their days in on-line meetings, with preschoolers in the same room, demanding, needing, and vying for attention. Some have parents who they worry about and feel the need to care for while unable to actually visit with them. Some face lay-offs or pay-cuts, on top of feeling the sting of racial injustice in America. Their stories are compelling and left me feeling a bit of second-hand trauma.
By its very nature, a dissertation is demanding. It requires digging deep, original thinking, and innovation. After all, a dissertation asks the writer to establish both new research and new findings. It is not regurgitation, but instead original research that adds to our collective knowledge. The challenge is always there, but today’s students need to stretch a bit farther and lift a bit more. In my experience, as in many other aspects of life, being brainy is a great advantage in writing a dissertation; but the real advantage is in being resilient. Facing problems head on, and not being dissuaded. Acknowledging adversity and finding a way through it. After spending most of the weekend on line with these students, I know they are up to the task.