Parents and students in Montana and across the country achieved a big win on June 30. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states cannot exclude religious schools from state scholarship programs that provide money for secular private schools. The lead plaintiff in the case, Kendra Espinoza, is a single mom who was able to send her two daughters to a private Christian school in 2015, thanks to the state scholarship program. But two years later, in 2017, the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the program altogether, claiming that it violated Montana’s anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, concluded that Montana’s Blaine Amendment violates the First Amendment, and the “state may no longer disqualify religious schools from scholarships or other programs ‘solely because they are religious,’” according to the U.S. Attorney General.
Alaska also has a Blaine Amendment in our state constitution. While the actual language of our constitution prohibits public funds for the “direct benefit” of private or religious schools, Alaska’s Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean direct or indirect funding. Advocates for educational choice in Alaska, including Alaska Policy Forum, have long argued for state programs that assist students in receiving educational opportunities beyond public school, including private, religious, or home-schooling programs. Essentially, parents should be free to choose the type of education they want for their children. Our state Blaine Amendment has been an obstacle in creating such programs.
This historic Supreme Court decision ruling Blaine Amendments unconstitutional will open doors for education in Alaska. Once programs are implemented that incorporate this ruling, parents will have greater ability to choose what schooling is best for their children. This is particularly timely with public school shutdowns occurring because of COVID-19. There are many schooling options outside of brick-and-mortar public schools, and children should have the opportunity to get the education that best fits their needs and standards.
It goes without saying that providing a good education for future generations is important, and by and large, families are better able to determine what is best for their children, rather than the state. Condemning states’ Blaine Amendments is an important step in allowing further access to better educational opportunities for all students.
Nearly a decade ago, via a statewide poll, Alaskans made it clear they supported school choice programs. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states’ Blaine Amendments are in direct violation of the First Amendment, Alaska policymakers should seize this opportunity to expand educational opportunities for our children. They deserve the education that best fits their needs, regardless of their religious beliefs or income status.