One of the biggest chuckles I had over the holiday break was while reading the New York Times news article previewing the U.S. Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
The case is about a Montana state program that provided tax credits to donors who funded scholarships to private schools, including religious schools. What made me laugh was the Times quote from a lawyer involved in the case, Raph Graybill. “I’m a product of our public schools in Montana,” Graybill told the Times. “I went to my local elementary school, publicly funded all the way, and ended up getting a Rhodes scholarship eventually. We have a great public school system, and the protection of that system is really at the heart of this case.”
This is so logically flawed it’s comical. It’s education policy, or education law, by solipsism. If Graybill tries it at the Supreme Court, my bet is that some of the justices will also laugh. And if it’s an accurate preview of the arguments Graybill is planning, it’s good news for the scholarship parents and religious schools hoping that the Supreme Court takes their side.
Just because the Montana public schools worked well for Graybill, after all, doesn’t prove anything. Perhaps Graybill would have won a Rhodes scholarship anyway, even if he had gone to a private religious school. If Graybill had gone to a religious school rather than a public school he might have even qualified for a Marshall scholarship rather than having to settle for a mere Rhodes.
Plenty of private religious schools do produce Rhodes scholars. Thomas Dowling, a 2010 graduate of St. John Fisher School, a Catholic school in Chicago, was a Rhodes Scholar, according to an article published in the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island and another Rhodes Scholar, is a graduate of La Salle Academy, a Catholic school in Providence. Aurora Griffin, another Rhodes scholar, went to Oaks Christian School, a Protestant school in Westlake Village, Calif. Noah Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a Rhodes scholar and a graduate of the Maimonides School, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, Mass. David Vitter, a Rhodes scholar who served as a U.S. Senator from Louisiana, is a graduate of a De La Salle High School, a Catholic school in New Orleans. The list stretches on and on. I’m not aware of any systematic studies of what high schools produce Rhodes scholars, or of whether graduates of private religious high schools are overrepresented among Rhodes winners relative to their presence among American college seniors, or even relative to their presence in the Rhodes applicant pool. Such a study might be interesting, but only up to a point, because producing Rhodes Scholarship winners is an unreasonably and unworkably narrow definition of a school’s success. I’m not aware of any private religious schools, either, with the nerve to argue that the fact that the private religious schools managed to generate a Rhodes scholar means that they should therefore be protected by law from competition from taxpayer-funded public schools.
As for Montana’s “great public school system,” that, too, is not necessarily so. The Urban Institute’s “America’s Gradebook” provides a demographically adjusted look at state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; by that reckoning, in 2019 Montana ranked 12th from the bottom of the barrel in 4th grade reading and 9th from the bottom of the barrel in 4th grade math. The 8th grade scores indicated similarly unimpressive levels of achievement.
Legal and empirical flaws quite aside though, the Graybill quote is worth thinking about carefully rather than dismissing or laughing off entirely. It tells a lot about the obstacles education reformers face in making the political case for change. Most American adults are products of the status quo, a status quo in which private enrollment only has a market share of somewhere between 11.7% (in 1995) and 10.3% (in 2015). If these adults are pleased with themselves, as Graybill apparently is and as many people in positions of power tend to be, they are likely to credit the public school they attended for some of their success, and to want to “protect” it from competitive pressure or challenges. Smug Rhodes scholars are easy targets for mockery. But for those working to change established structures in education, the “it worked fine for me” argument is a real roadblock.
The natural comeback is that traditional public schools may have worked fine for Graybill, but they don’t work as well for some other families, who would like the freedom to try other alternatives that might work better. As the justices weigh the legal and empirical questions at the oral argument in the case that is scheduled for January 22, let them keep the non-Graybill students in mind.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.
Last updated January 16, 2020