The Supreme Court provided a massive win for religious freedom on Tuesday, ruling that Maine cannot discriminate against religious schools when it provides money to parents for children to attend private schools. This is just the latest win for empowering parents—and not the state—to decide the type of education that their children will receive.
But many on the left believe the Court got this case wrong. And a central theme of their argument is the one echoed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She wrote that the Court’s decision meant that states are now “required to fund religious exercise.” But that isn’t what the Supreme Court did, and it isn’t how school choice works. That’s because school choice programs, at their core, fund parents Sotomayor—not schools.
Let’s start with an analogy. My grandfather is a 94-year-old who receives Social Security benefits. His religious convictions tell him that he should tithe 10% of his income to his local church, and so he gives his church 10% of the money he receives from the Social Security Administration. The government could not come in and tell my grandfather that he can’t give his money to his church. Not only does the government not know whether the money he gives comes from his personal assets or from the Social Security check, but more importantly, it has given my grandfather a choice on what he spends his money on. It can’t the restrict that choice because it doesn’t like religion.
This is the same principle behind parent empowerment. First, the Supreme Court was clear that states are not forced to provide funding for religion. As Justice John Roberts wrote, “the dissents are wrong to say that under our decision today Maine ’must’ fund religious education. Maine chose to allow some parents to direct state tuition payments to private schools; that decision was not ’forced upon’ it.”
The Court’s case law sets up a very simple rule for states. They are not required to provide options for parents regarding where they can send their kids to school, but once they give parents money to send their kids to alternative schools, they can’t pick and choose which schools can receive that money based on the school’s religious affiliation.
But more importantly, this view that the state must now fund religious schools misconstrues school choice. School choice programs give parents funds to pay for schools. By empowering parents, it gives them the ability to choose the best schools for their kids. It’s not the state funding that school, rather it’s the state funding the students.
And this distinction is critical, because the state doesn’t have to make sure that every religion is represented by a private school. By letting parents decide which schools provide the best experience for kids, the state won’t be involved with defining the ways schools educate their students.
The problem is, right now, states are funding particular ideas and ideologies through our public school system. By enacting school choice programs, and empowering parents to pick which schools their kids attend, states around the country can provide better and more tailored educational experiences to the next generation of leaders. And parents, not the State, will fund the best schools.