Latest Supreme Court Ruling Could Change School Choice in Minnesota

School choice advocates around the country have renewed hope following the recent decision of a Supreme Court case.

school choice, Blaine amendment
Image Credit: Joe Ravi - CC-BY-SA 3.0

WASHINGTON — School choice advocates received another huge win at the hands of the United States Supreme Court late last month.

In April, the Justices of the Supreme Court, along with newly appointed Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, listened to Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.

Trinity Lutheran Church, located in Columbia, Missouri, applied for a Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grant to change the playground sand at a daycare and preschool they operate, from pea-sized gravel to a rubber surface that is more child friendly. However, the state Constitution bars public dollars from funding religious organizations.

But in June 2017, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the church stating the state violated the first amendment by denying federal grants based on their religious status.

According to The Atlantic, Trinity v. Comer has the propensity to overrule the current school choice laws that exist in most states, arguing that the Supreme Court, within the last two decades, has a history of voting in favor of state-funded vouchers for religious schools.

In 1947, the Supreme Court ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that New Jersey school districts could reimburse parents for the cost of their child’s transportation to and from religious schools as the reimbursement went to parents and not the religious institution.

Most states have a common amendment in their constitutions known as the Blaine Amendment, named after Republican Congressman James Blaine, who in 1876, attempted to amend the U.S. Constitution to include language that would ban taxpayer dollars from funding religious institutions.

Minnesota, which also has the Blaine Amendment tucked into its state constitution faced a fight in 2017 as Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, tried to pass school vouchers.

Republicans sponsored “opportunity scholarships” that would allow low-to-middle income families the opportunity to send their kids the school they choose. Alpha News reported that advocates were excited of the prospects of placing kids in school that fit, while members of Education Minnesota argued that the move would gut funds from public schools.

However, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of school choice in previous cases. In 2002, the Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, that a similar program proposed by Minnesota Republicans in the Cleveland School District, was constitutional because it was religiously neutral.

At the time, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the opinion:

“We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion, i. e., any parent of a school-age child who resides in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation of all schools within the district, religious or nonreligious. Adjacent public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools.”

The ruling in Trinity could change the way states approach the school choice issue.

While it is unknown how Minnesota Republicans will proceed with the issue of school choice, those in Colorado, who have been battling the issue for several years have hope.

According to the Denver Post, school choice supporters plan to fight for educational options for students who attend public schools in Colorado.


Preya Samsundar

Preya Samsundar was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN. She graduated from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities this Spring with a B.A. in Political Science and Sociology, with a minor in Strategic Communications. Preya has previously worked on several State Campaign Races.