Supreme Court broadens school choice options, but states need to act
By Lance Izumi and McKenzie Richards
The case, Carson v. Makin, involved a Maine law that prevented parents and their children from using state-provided tuition assistance to access private religious schools.
Maine mother Amy Carson, a lead plaintiff in the case, criticized the law, saying, “The state will take your money, but won’t allow you to use it as you know best.”
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Carson and ruled that Maine violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause.
According to Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion, “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”
The Carson ruling, in conjunction with previous Supreme Court rulings, will increase the learning options from which parents may choose for their children. In states that have school choice tools, such as government-funded education savings accounts for children, parents may now select from the entire spectrum of private schools, including those that are religious in nature and practice.
The reaction to the Carson decision from those who would be affected has been celebratory, although with some notes of caution.
Laurel Beckstead, the head of a faith-based private school in Las Vegas, Nevada, expressed excitement over the ruling but conveyed her wish for better school choice options in her state: “I just know that the next step is for every state to adopt true school-choice. Maybe it needs to be a top-down decision that says the dollar follows the student, not the system.”
Nevada, like California and other states, does not currently allow government funding to follow the child to a private school, either secular or religious.
Still, Laurel feels hopeful: “It is providential that [Carson v. Makin] happened first. It sets the stage for when they do offer school choice in every state, it can go to religious schools, which is necessary.”
However, an attorney who works at a private religious school had a more cautious outlook, based on personal experience, as to whether the Carson v. Makin decision would make as much of a difference as choice proponents hope.
For example, the public school district where his private religious school is located had held annual auctions to sell off unused school supplies and furniture. However, once the district learned that private religious schools benefited from the surplus, the school board opted to send the new and lightly used supplies to a scrapper instead. “It’s just spiteful,” he lamented.
The attorney’s caution is not unwarranted. Recall when the Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME case that government workers could not be forced to pay fees to public employee unions. In response, California enacted laws to continue to allow union dues and fees to be deducted from employee paychecks; to allow unions to propagandize new government hires in orientation sessions; and to furnish the unions with the contact information for new hires, including home addresses, personal phone numbers, and email addresses.
Still, the Carson v. Makin decision does set the stage for states to pass more options for parents and their children to receive funding for private religious education.
Craig Hulse, head of the education reform nonprofit group yes. every kid., observed that the ruling “sets a strong precedent” that underscores that “families are the best decision makers when it comes to their child’s education.”
Going forward, it will be up to proponents of school choice to ensure that lawmakers allow families to make those crucial decisions to the full extent laid out by the Supreme Court, thus transforming legal theory into a practical reality.
Lance Izumi is the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. McKenzie Richards is a policy associate at the Pacific Research Institute.