SCOTUS opens the door to public funding of private schools.

For public schools, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue is the most consequential decision of this year’s Supreme Court term.  By the slimmest of margins (5-4) the Court paved the way for states to use public funding to support private education.  Look for this to be a major issue in the 2021 Texas legislative session. 

Montana enacted a bill that allowed people to get a tax credit for donating to a nonprofit organization that would pay for private school tuition.  Put yourself in the shoes of a Montana taxpayer who owes $1000 in state income tax.  Under this scheme, you can handle this in one of two ways:  1) pay the $1000 to the state; or 2) make a $150 contribution to the nonprofit, and pay $850 to the state.  Tax credits were capped at $150.

Let’s consider winners and losers:

WINNERS:     Families who send their kids to private schools.


NEUTRAL:    The taxpayer. 

LOSERS:        The state.

                        The public schools.

                        Public school employees.

My classification of the Taxpayer as “neutral” is accurate only insofar as dollars and cents is concerned. Either way, our Taxpayer is out $1000. But by choosing to donate to the nonprofit, the Taxpayer has the psychic satisfaction of controlling how tax dollars are spent.  Power! Sticking it to the Man!! So our Taxpayer should probably be classified as Neutral Plus.

Can a scheme like this be enacted if the money is going to go to a private school that is operated by a religious organization?  Most private schools are. So if you are going to use public money to support private schools you are inevitably going to be supporting the local Catholic school, the Jewish academy, the mosque school.  Is that OK?

Five members of the Supreme Court held that it is OK. In fact, they held that states are never required to use public money to support private schools, but if they choose to do so, they cannot limit the funding to non-religious schools.  You have to let Sister Mary Holy water in on the deal. If you don’t, you are infringing on the rights of parents to freely exercise their religion.

This is going to be a big issue in the next legislative session.  It’s an issue in the election this fall, as there are many running for office who support public dollars going to private schools.  Let’s get ready.


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!