While the political wind gathers behind the parents, the highest court in the country is considering again whether it should strengthen their right to choose a school. A legal win there next year could also pave the way to break down some remaining barriers that limit parenting choices in some states.
The expansion of the educational offer in 2021 was breathtaking. A record 18 states approved new or larger selection programs, and frustrated parents recently fueled an upstart election victory in Virginia. Now another state has come into the spotlight with a Supreme Court argument that could ensure millions of families avoid legal pitfalls while choosing the best school for their child.
Maine is one of only two states with an almost 150-year-old city education program. Parents like David and Amy Carson, who live in a rural area where public schooling is not their child’s grade level, could have used a certain amount of government funds to pay for their daughter to attend a public or private school. (She graduated and went to college since the beginning of the trial.) For the past 40 years, the state has denied families the opportunity to spend their state tuition in a religious school.
Last summer, the US Supreme Court ruled that states that offer K-12 classroom assistance to families “can exclude some private schools just because they are religious”. The decision was a victory for Kendra Espinoza, a single mother. Montana had denied her access to the benefits of a scholarship program because she chose to enroll her daughters in a Christian school.
The 2020 Espinoza ruling invalidated the anti-aid regulations of most states that discriminated against schools based on their religious status. In other words, families cannot be prevented from using government scholarship funds in a school simply because they belong to a church or a belief. But Maine officials split their hair to persist in their discrimination by banning parents from choosing a school that promotes religious teaching and using state dollars to pay their children’s tuition fees. In other words, the state denied the Carsons daughter a chance because the school the family chose was serious about her commitment to the faith.
“Religious schools teach religion,” argued Justice Institute attorney Michael Bindas on behalf of the family before the Supreme Court. “It’s part of what they do. Just because of religion [certain schools] are excluded “from independent family choice in the Maine program.
A positive decision for the Carsons in 2022 seems likely, but it may not do much for families in Michigan, one of the few states not directly affected by the Espinoza decision. Our state’s anti-aid supplement is more recent than others, carefully worded to strike a neutral tone about religion, be it on the status of a school or specifically on how funds might be used.
While the finer laws differ, Michigan change hinders families in much the same way that Maine officials discriminated against the Carsons. Like many couples, George and Michelle Lupanoff of Grand Rapids, Michigan made the school choice by moving to their desired district and taking responsibility for a home mortgage. In recent years, however, their twin daughters have seen an uncomfortable turn in the campus environment and in classroom texts and curricula. They searched and saved money to provide the girls with private Christian education while they prepared for transition to high school.
A pending case by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation on behalf of the Lupanoffs and four other families claims that Michigan’s 50-year-old change was not only born out of anti-religious bigotry, but unfairly restricts their decisions today. The latest federal tax reform has opened the door for Michigan families to receive a state tax break by using their 529 college savings plan to pay K-12 tuition fees.
But the state’s restrictive anti-aid amendment stands in the way. After that, the Lupanoffs can use 529 funds to pay nearly $ 11,000 a year to enroll their children in the neighboring East Grand Rapids School District if they so choose. But there is no way you can get the same tax break using the NorthPointe Christian payment plan for your daughters’ tuition. Not unless the Supreme Court deliberates to put things right.
As freedom of education and religion progress steadily, the heart of the Great Lakes remains their next frontier. A win in Carson should only raise hopes for families in Michigan.
Ben DeGrow is the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.