Lost in the hullaballoo surrounding the Roe v. Wade reversal is another Supreme Court decision that delivers a win for individualized educational opportunity – school choice. The court voted 6-3 in Carson v. Makin to strike down Maine’s prohibition of using the state’s town tuition program to fund attendance at religious schools. As significant as that is, it also serves as a reminder of just how far there is to go to broaden the availability of K-12 school choice across the country.
For those unfamiliar with this program, Maine is one of three New England states, along with Vermont and New Hampshire, that has what is called a “town tuition” program. Town tuition was created to assist students who live in isolated areas of these states in getting a K-12 education. In some sparsely populated areas of those states, local school districts do not have either an elementary or high school for students to attend. When that is the case, the district must pay for the students to attend a school in another district. The program is nothing new. Maine’s town tuition started in 1873 (proving school choice is nothing new). It is, however, quite small. According to EdChoice, a little over 2% of Maine’s approximately 180,000 K-12 students are eligible. For the 2020-21 school year, only 4,368 students in Maine received town tuition.
The decision is the second U.S. Supreme Court ruling in recent memory that strikes a blow against religious bigotry. Writing for the majority in Carson, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operated to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.” This is similar language that was written in Espinoza v. Montana, a tax credit scholarship program similar to the one in Kansas, decided by the court in 2020. In that case, the court was clear that excluding public funding from private schools based on religion is a First Amendment violation of one’s practice of religion.
The Maine case serves as an example of how a state can easily get carried away with a misinterpretation of what is commonly (and mostly incorrectly) called separation of church and state. In the first hundred years of town tuition program in Maine, religious schools received town tuition money. But in the 1970s there began church and state rumblings. According to a historical paper from the University of Maine “the tuitioning of students into religious schools was challenged on the grounds that it violated the first amendment to the United States Constitution…Subsequently, Maine state law was revised to state that only non-sectarian schools would be eligible to receive town tuitioned students.” That change in the town tuition law was enacted in the early 1980s and had been in effect until challenged by the Carson family in their lawsuit filed in 2018.
Keep in mind that of 4,000+ students who receive town tuition, only a handful are enrolled in private, non-sectarian schools, a number that will change post-Carson.
Despite another win for school choice and a blow to the education establishment, the Maine case also serves as a reminder of how far there is to go in expanding school choice across the country to help students nationwide escape the grip of a failing school district system.
All of the states, Kansas especially, must pick up the pace for allowing freedom of choice when it comes to primary and secondary education across the country. Keep in mind that K-12 education is one of the only places the question of “religion” comes into government funding. Medicaid is happily accepted at Via Christi hospitals in Wichita and countless religiously affiliated colleges wouldn’t exist but for Pell Grants and government backed student loans.
The Maine program is one of many carve-outs that allow only a specially identified relative handful of students to seek an education of their choosing. When it comes to school choice policy, we must change the fundamental approach to educating our youth. Currently, when it comes to education, freedom of choice is the exception, not the rule. Those two conditions must be reversed.
Does it really make any sense that the only way to escape an archaic, rigid, and failing education system is to be part of an identified special group?