Twenty-five years ago, the possibility of fully validating and financially empowering parents to choose the schools their children attend was only a dream. It is my hope and belief that this dream may be about to come true.
The question in the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue now pending before the Supreme Court is whether the Blaine amendment in Montana’s State Constitution can invalidate its tax-credit scholarship program on the basis of religion.
If the court rules that Blaine amendments (which were spawned in religious discrimination) can override the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the free exercise of religion is profoundly damaged, and no tax deductions or credits directly or indirectly related to any religiously affiliated organization, including colleges, can logically survive.
This case is far beyond and very different from the long-debated voucher approach. The source of voucher funding is appropriated public money, which brings constitutional and other challenges if religious schools are involved.
Tax-credit scholarships (previously upheld by the Supreme Court) authorize taxpayers to claim a tax credit when they make private, voluntary contributions to charities that provide private scholarships for children.
Parents are then free to choose the school they deem best, religious or otherwise, for their child, and neither the school nor the parents have to fear intrusive government strings that come with government funding. Even the poorest child is now offered the opportunity that previously only children of wealthy parents could afford.
It is impossible to truthfully argue that tax-credit scholarships are tantamount to taxpayer funding of religious education.
First, the monies donated to private charities come from private individual’s private money, not public coffers.
Second, the reduced revenue to the state as a result of any tax credits claimed is more than offset by reduced state expenditures, since the average cost of private tuition is approximately half the cost of sending the same student to the average public school.
Further, many of the private scholarships granted are only partial scholarships, with additional private dollars making up the difference. Consequently, the use of tax-credit scholarships significantly reduces taxpayer burden rather than increasing it.
Tax-credit scholarships do not fund an establishment of religion. The Blaine amendments absolutely do prohibit the free exercise thereof.
Since the first tax-credit scholarship legislation, identical to that which the Supreme Court now juxtaposes against Montana’s Blaine amendment, was passed in Arizona in 1997, it has been embraced by 17 additional states.
The result has been that approximately half a million scholarships have been received by K-12 children to attend a school of their parents’ choice in those states. It is the largest school-choice mechanism in America.
If the 37 states with Blaine amendments are also able to adopt this approach to parental empowerment, millions of children could attend the school of their parents’ choice in the decades to come.
Not only will it portend a brighter future for the children who do gain scholarships, but the resulting competitive excellence created in the system at large will also mean a brighter future for the tens of millions of who do not.
Daniel Webster said, “If we work upon marble, it will perish; if we work upon brass, time will efface it; if we rear temples, they will crumble into dust; but if we work upon immortal minds, if we imbue them with right principles, with the just fear of God and love of our fellow-men, we engrave on those tablets something which will brighten to all eternity.”
So much of America’s future is at stake in this case. All of us intrinsically know that the spiritual, social and academic principles inculcated in the hearts and minds of our children establish, more than any other mortal factor, the paradigm of America’s future.
To determine these principles, will we trust then often ideologically driven government bureaucracies or the parents who love their children more than anything else on earth?
It is a question of inexpressible gravity.
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