Editorial: True school choice still eludes Michigan

The Detroit News

The U.S. Supreme Court last week made a stand for school choice and religious liberty. Yet while Michigan choice proponents can share in that victory from afar, families here aren’t likely to see any tangible change. 

The ruling importantly will go a long way to ridding the country of the bigotry of Blaine amendments, anti-Catholic relics from the 19th century that still exist in 37 states in varying degrees. The 5-4 decision argued that states may not strike down school choice programs only because they allow parents to choose a faith-based school. 

That’s what had happened in Montana, after that state’s Supreme Court struck down a tax-credit school choice program that allowed families to choose a religious school.

Kendra Espinoza of Kalispell, Montana, center, stands with her daughters Naomi and Sarah outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020 in Washington. Espinoza is the lead plaintiff in a case the court heard Wednesday that could make it easier to use public money to pay for religious schooling in many states.

Kendra Espinoza, a single mother of two daughters, became the lead plaintiff in that case, since she had benefited from sending her children to a Christian school through the new program. 

“The Court held that barring religious options in school choice programs violates the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty,” according to a statement from the Institute for Justice, which represented the plaintiffs in the case. “School choice programs must be neutral regarding religion and allow families to choose the educational placement that works best for their families.”

That’s where it gets tricky in Michigan, which is known for having one of the most restrictive Blaine amendments in the country. Our constitution is written in a way to prevent any public funds from reaching any nonpublic school — in any form. 

As it states: “No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school.”

Since it doesn’t explicitly block school choice programs based on religion, legal experts don’t don’t think the Espinoza decision will have any impact on lifting those restrictions. 

That’s not stopping some private school leaders in Michigan from holding out some hope, however.

“I am hopeful that upon further analysis, the Espinoza decision will set in motion the process for eliminating Michigan’s discriminatory Blaine amendment which bans aid to nonpublic school students, the vast majority of which are Catholic and faith-based,” said Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, in a social media post.

Kijewski also says he’s going to be paying close attention to what impact the High Court’s decision will have on a case before the Michigan Supreme Court related to reimbursing private schools for health and safety mandates required by the state. The state court had delayed a decision until the Espinoza ruling. 

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Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, isn’t expecting the Espinoza decision to have direct influence in Michigan. But he says the state is now part of a “small handful of outliers” when it comes to educational opportunity.

If nothing else, this decision should spur a renewed debate among Michiganians and lawmakers over changing the state’s constitution and finally giving families true school choice.