Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark ruling supporting families’ right to choose any private school, including religious-affiliated schools, for their children as part of state school choice programs.
The Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that Montana’s prohibition against using tax credit scholarships to attend religious schools “discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution.”
This ruling represents a rejection by the Court of so-called “Blaine Amendments,” contained in many states’ constitution, which block families seeking to utilize publicly-funded school choice program to attend faith-based, or religious-affiliated, schools.
In a legal brief included in the case, EdChoice Vice President of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner argued that the Montana rule violated the right of religious entities to fully engage in public life. “Ultimately, Montana residents with extremely limited educational options are being denied the ability to provide a better education for their children.”
Nevada’s Constitution also contains such a provision — Article 11, Section 10 — which stipulates, “No public funds to be used for sectarian purposes.”
The implications of today’s ruling for Nevada are limited, in the near-term. The tiny Opportunity Scholarship program currently includes less than 2,000 students using their scholarships to attend faith-based private schools. While the Nevada legislature cut funding to this program last year, no court has found the program problematic.
Today’s ruling may hold future implications should state decisionmakers reconsider Nevada’s Education Savings Account law, passed in 2015. Nevada’s Supreme Court in 2016 concluded in response to a legal challenge to the program that it is, in fact, allowed by Nevada’s constitution, although Section 10’s prohibition on funding for sectarian purposes required that lawmakers identify alternate revenue sources for the program.
Also last year, lawmakers acted to strike the Education Savings Account language from state law, although this legislation, SB 551, is currently the subject of a different challenge before the Nevada Supreme Court, filed by the eight Republican Senators who voted against the bill.
It is unlikely that today’s Supreme Court ruling will cause any changes to school choice programs in Nevada unless the legislature revisits these questions, either in a currently-pending special session or in its scheduled 2021 session.
It is nonetheless, a widely-anticipated positive development for school choice and for families seeking to exercise educational freedom to choose faith-based schools to meet their educational needs. Nevada families have persistently registered overwhelming support for programs that include private school choice, most recently at a rate of 70 percent statewide.