The national conversation – from mainstream media to water cooler talk on politics – seems to focus on diversity within America as we grapple with healing our racial divide. It is rather amazing, therefore, that one of the solutions to our longstanding woes comes from a state where people – let alone Black people – are scarce.
The state of Montana has roughly the same number of total residents as there are African-Americans living in Chicago. There are 13 times more White Americans in Montana than there are folks of any other background. It hardly stands out as an epicenter for education opportunity for the disadvantaged in need of education reform in urban America — until this week.
The fight for education opportunity has been championed by Black students for decades, from efforts to desegregate schools to legislation affording equitable education through school choice. Now, more progress comes in the form of a Supreme Court ruling stemming from “Big Sky Country”. The Espinosa v. Montana Department of Revenue ruling extends the ability of states to provide education opportunity. With the ruling this week, more students can seek school choice through leveraging education funds regardless of the religious affiliation of the schools they enroll in.
This 5-4 decision allows school choice to truly empower parents to choose the best scholastic environments for their children. Academic rigor is only one component of education. This ruling reminds America that character enrichment, physical safety, and cultural well-roundedness are just as important to students in the education system as are challenging scholastic environments.
This decision may seem to only benefit faith-based institutions as they seek to attract more students during a rough patch for religiously-affiliated schools during the pandemic. However, we need to dig deeper to see deeper impacts. I thought about some of those as I sat in the courtroom earlier this year in Washington, DC, listening to oral arguments in the Espinosa case.
For example, growing up in a city where 25% of its residents are living in poverty is often soul-crushing. Yet, students of The Gesu School in Philadelphia have had their spirits lifted throughout their matriculation at the school for decades. Further still, their ambitions for life and aptitude to succeed also have been enhanced because of the holistic environment that Gesu provides. Although parents send their children to Gesu for the academic, moral, and cultural flourishing that follows, they are not enrolling with the goal of converting to Catholicism. The same can be said for Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic School in Wilkinsburg, named after an African-American nun who worked to heal cultural divides while living through some of the worst that Mississippi had to offer. Despite being located in one of the roughest sections of the region (e.g., a murder victim was found on the school grounds merely hours before students arrived for classes), the school provides the community and coursework needed to elevate their attendees past the decades of destitution that have riddled their neighborhoods.
Conservatives who champion the Espinosa v. Montana Dept. of Revenue case as simply a victory over so-called Blaine Amendments (i.e., amendments written into state constitutions during the 19th and 20th centuries out of mostly anti-Catholic bigotry) miss the point. Although this is a victory for religiously-affiliated schools to receive the same treatment as other private schools when competing for school choice funding, it means much more practically. The bigger victory lies in the fact that parents who seek both the academic heft and cultural seasoning necessary for their children to succeed in an ever-changing world are now freer to do so. Education is one of the most important issues we face during the Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century. Accessing the full breadth of options within school choice provides the best opportunity for disadvantaged or historically discriminated-against Americans to close the stubborn gaps gulfing too many children from fulfilled potential.
With the Court’s decision, legal entanglements are removed that would otherwise prevent needy children from receiving gateways to robust opportunities by way of attending faith-based schools. More children will be able to receive a much-needed spiritual jolt to counteract the hopelessness that tempts many souls after being surrounded by depravity in failing schools. More children will receive moral reinforcement through daily instruction at these schools. That can only work to counteract the disproportionate exposure on impressionable minds to violence, illness, substance abuse, and illegal activities. More children will have their definitions of faith, hope, and love normalize in a society that has stifled these attributes, particularly during a pandemic where tensions are high and their quality of life wanes.
We are incapable of reversing the civic, moral, and societal decays that we face regularly in modern America without aggressively addressing the economic disparities that impact a wide range of other quality of life factors for struggling Americans. One of the best ways to rightfully heal these legacy scars is to level the playing field in education, availing more Americans to the capabilities they need to succeed. If education is a right, access to a quality, encompassing education must be a prerequisite before any taxpayer-funded monies are used to pay for any school – be it public or private. Now, we see that when states acknowledge this prerequisite (stemming from our collective failures to do so previously), all school choice options are welcomed to alleviate the conditions American children have faced for decades. It is a beacon call for a better way without heeding the notions of radicalization that currently permeate the national landscape. It is a big step towards a consistent freedom and equality – first in education, then in society.