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School Choice: Catholic Schools get a Lifeline – but will they use it?

Editors note: Although this article addresses the Blaine Amendment, this decision by SCOTUS is a big win for School Choice and Parental Rights.

The June 30, 2020 Supreme Court decision in the Espinoza v. Montana case by a narrow 5-4 margin was without doubt a huge win for religious liberty and school choice. This decision made it illegal to exclude parochial schools from state-wide school choice programs. The decision finally drove a stake in the heart of the odious Blaine Amendment that prevented parochial schools from receiving any public funds of any kind that would be allocated to public education. The Blaine amendment, which took dead aim at undermining Catholic education just narrowly missed becoming an amendment to the US Constitution, but was nevertheless adopted by 37 states (NJ is not a Blaine Amendment state). For nearly 150 years the Blaine Amendment represented exhibit # 1 of codified bigotry against Catholics and indeed people of all faiths. Yet, here in this day and age where everyone is “woke” and hypersensitive against bigotry of any type – real or imagined, there were still four Supreme Court Justices who dissented. To paraphrase Senator Diane Feinstein back in 2017 during her questioning of the Catholic judge Amy Barrett, “The bigotry still lives loudly within them (applicable today to the dissenting Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer and Ginsberg).


Supreme Court rules Montana can’t keep religious schools out of funding program


So, with this important court victory what should we expect for the school choice movement in New Jersey? Keep in mind that since our inception The Center for Garden State Families has been at the forefront for school choice in New Jersey. We believe that education should be parent-controlled, not state controlled. We believe the public-school system has been on the decline ever since prayer was removed by a 1962 Supreme Court Decision (Engle v. Vitale). The Center has even produced game-changing legislation that was (after many years of effort) introduced in the New Jersey Assembly in May of 2018 – “The New Jersey Property Tax Relief and Education Empowerment Act.” This bill would provide a substantial school choice empowerment grant or anywhere from $8,000 – $14,000/yr. depending on the district, to qualified families and use the savings from the drawdown in the public schools to drive property tax relief. Obviously, such a bill, if it became law, would change the environment from one where parochial schools struggle to survive to one where they would flourish.  It would open up an escape hatch for all those inner-city families consigned to public schools that barely get 15% of students to grade level (yet they graduate 95% or more).


St Joseph High School in Camden to close for good at end of 2020 school year.


With parochial schools struggling and Catholic schools closing en masse, I hope that  Catholic leadership would respond with a sense of urgency to support this bill. To date, that has not been the case. However, the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI) immediately recognized the potential of this bill to have broad appeal and be a game-changer for school choice and endorsed the bill in 2019 after just 2 months of review and comment. Sadly, Catholic leadership has not responded similarly. Fear of public schools’ and teachers’ unions retaliation and conflicting interests appear to override reason and courage.   In September of 2015, the NJ Knights of Columbus Civil Rights Committee – the committee that every year passes a resolution in favor of school choice – rejected the bill outright on the fear it would harm public schools (it won’t). I think the parents of Catholic school students, who want the schools to which they send their children to survive, would be taken aback to know that after several meetings with Catholic School Superintendents, they refused to endorse the bill – even with changes they asked for. Instead, they contemplate a tax credit program of such a small amount that it would not drive any change in enrollment.

So that is why I ask if the NJ Catholic Leadership will take advantage of this court victory. To this point the “don’t frighten the horses” legislative strategy, as guided by Dr. George Crowell over the past 20+ years has been to achieve barely noticeable incremental gains in school choice. Given the massive closures of Catholic schools over the past 10 years, this policy has been an abject failure. Furthermore, the willing submission of Catholic Churches to voluntarily close their doors at the behest of the Governor without any pushback calls into question if there is any sincere commitment at all to keep Catholic schools open when there was not any objection to closing the Churches themselves. I guess the Catholic Leadership forgot the second part of Jesus’ instruction to ‘render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but render onto God, what is God’s”. The first part was easy. The second part takes courage.

Apparently, this courage will need to come from the Catholic laity rather than the leadership to fight this battle. But it is a battle worth fighting for. The education of our children desperately needs to be taken out of the hands of government who have failed our children academically, indoctrinated them politically, and brainwashed them morally. Now more than ever, with the mandatory NJ sex-ed curriculum, which is ordered to having children question their sexual identity, parents need an exit ramp out of the public-school monopoly. Education empowerment must be returned to parents. Please join The Center for Garden State Families in this battle. Other states are winning this battle. New Jersey can too.

William Maxwell – Catholic Parent

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