Will School Choice Reach the Supreme Court Next Year?

(Commonwealth Foundation) Annie Jackson, a waitress at Roxy’s Café in downtown Harrisburg, knows firsthand why families need school choice. Annie waitressed eight months into her pregnancy to pay private school tuition for her daughter, Grace.

Annie sent Grace to St. Stephen’s Episcopal School—where the small classes and faith-based learning helped her excel—rather than the struggling Harrisburg School District, where average student proficiency rates lag at 20 percent in reading and 10 percent in math.

Like many parents, Annie struggles to pay tuition. Access to even a fraction of the state and local tax dollars allocated for their child’s education would make a world of difference. However, in Pennsylvania and many other states, so-called Blaine Amendments prohibit any public money from benefitting religious schools. These amendments severely limit educational options—especially for families without the resources to move or pay private tuition when their public school is inadequate.

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri could not exclude a church from a statewide playground resurfacing program on religious grounds. The 7-2 majority in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. V. Comer held that withholding funds from only religious schools violated the First Amendment right of those schools. However, the ruling stopped short of invalidating the many state Blaine Amendments which effectively violate the same First Amendment right.

The Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm, has since filed suit in several states, contending that all Blaine Amendments are discriminatory and unconstitutional. If the court hears and rules on IJ’s cases, the door could be opened for parent-empowering education choice programs. Annie and Grace—and thousands of Pennsylvania families—could have the opportunity to use state and local funding to attend the school that fits them best. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. already demonstrate how such a system can succeed.

Overturning Blaine Amendments could trigger a philosophical shift in education funding: funding students, not just systems.

Pennsylvania currently has an educational opportunity gap. Students in many neighborhoods are trapped in their zip code, denied the capacity to achieve their full potential. A Blaine-free education system could change that by eliminating religious discrimination and giving all children equal access to a quality education.