Montana’s early settlers braved a tough wilderness in search of better lives for their families. Today, Montana families like the Espinozas, Andersons and Schaefers are engaged in another struggle, the struggle for better quality education.
Montana’s Supreme Court recently ruled against the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which helps families afford the best education fit for their kids. The court overturned the program on the basis of the state’s Blaine Amendment. This outdated law found in 37 other states including Pennsylvania, was passed over a century ago by protestants to financially strangle Catholic schools.
Today, public-school lobbyists use Blaine Amendments to block innovative school choice programs. In Pennsylvania, the practical effect is school choice programs are limited to statewide funds and cannot access local funding.
However, Blaine amendments may be on their way out. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 7-2 majority that Missouri could not exclude a church from a statewide playground resurfacing program on religious grounds. That case, Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, began when a Missouri church applied for a state school facilities grant. Missouri denied the funding, citing separation clauses in the state constitution, but SCOTUS held that an educational religious institution couldn’t be barred from taking part in a publicly available, non sectarian grant solely because it is religious.
The appeal of the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court could be the end of Blaine amendments. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm representing three Montana mothers, argues the state court’s interpretation is at odds with the federal constitution. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, it would expand access to education choice for students in Montana and across the nation.
Blaine amendments keep money from following the student, a primary driver of the Commonwealth’s educational opportunity gap. Too many Pennsylvania students are trapped in their zip code and denied the ability to attend nearby school that would better fit their unique needs. A Blaine-free education system could go a long way in giving all children equal access to a quality education.