U.S. Supreme Court Hears Flathead Mothers’ School Choice Lawsuit

Kendra Espinoza and two other mothers are suing the state for adopting a rule that barred religious schools from benefiting from a tax credit program

By Justin Franz

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case last week of three Flathead County women who say a decision by the Montana Department of Revenue to restrict a tax credit program that benefited private schools violates the constitution.

Kendra Espinoza, the lead plaintiff in the case, went to Washington D.C. to hear oral arguments before the nation’s highest court on Jan. 22. The hearing was the latest for a case that has been winding through the justice system since 2015, when Espinoza, Jeri Anderson and Jaime Schaefer sued the Montana Department of Revenue.

In 2015, the Montana Legislature passed a law that provided a tax credit up to $150 for anyone supporting scholarships for private schools. Later, the Department of Revenue issued an administrative rule restricting the tax credit from being used to benefit religious schools. The department reasoned that having the tax credit used for religious schools would be a violation of the Montana Constitution that prohibits public funding for religious organizations. All three women’s children attend Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell.

Tuition at Stillwater can cost between $3,400 and $8,600 annually, depending on the grade. Espinoza said she relied on scholarships to help send her two daughters, Sarah and Naomi, to the school.

In 2018, the Montana Supreme Court overturned a Flathead County District Court ruling in favor of the parents. The parents, represented by attorneys from a school-choice group called Institute for Justice, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided last year to hear it. While the court receives thousands of appeals annually, it only usually takes up 100 or so cases a year.

The case has pitted those who support public funding for private schools against those who worry it would starve public schools of money. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said a ruling in favor of the Kalispell mothers would have a drastic impact on the American education system. The teachers union has come out against the tax credit.

“It would turn more than two centuries of American history and our understanding of the Constitution and religious liberty on their head, and mandate public taxpayer support for religious schools,” Weingarten stated in a press release.

Espinoza said she is proud to be fighting for a cause that she believes is important to her and other families. She said she was especially glad that her daughters were able to go with her to Washington D.C.

“To think that this case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court is just mind-blowing,” she said. “I think being there helped my daughters realize that this is much bigger than themselves.”

The court is expected to make a ruling this summer.

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