As a second grader, Raeyln Sukhbir used to cry every night. She was being bullied “unmercifully” in the public school she was attending. Life at home was miserable because the poor girl was so anxious and despondent — which had her parents worried about how bad things must have been the rest of the time.
Raelyn “did not want to be around other kids, and was clingy whenever we would visit friends,” her mother told lawyer Andrea Picciotti-Bayer. “She did not want to participate in any activities or sports.” Her father, a retired Army veteran who was injured in Afghanistan, talked to the teachers and administrators, but there was no improvement.
Brittany and Kyle Sukhbir had heard good things about St. Mary’s, a Catholic school in their area with a “zero-tolerance policy” about bullying. Picciotti-Bayer writes that “the Sukhbirs did not think that they could afford private school, but the daily bullying simply became too much for Raelyn to bear.”
They contacted the school just before Christmas, and Raelyn spent a day “trying on” the school. “Every single teacher knew her name, and every student was excited to meet Raelyn and play with her,” her mother said.
Two years later, the girl is transformed. She’s not shy and reserved anymore, but outgoing. She fully participates in the life of the school, including sports, and is thriving academically.
Brittany works as an office manager at a local physical therapy clinic, and Kyle works in North Dakota on an oil field two weeks of every month. Their combined salaries would not cover tuition for the now 8-year-old Raelyn and their son, 5-year-old Wyatt. She used to think that St. Mary’s was “only for rich kids,” she says. “But I now know that is 100 percent not the case.” Knowledge about tuition assistance, like the kind the family receives from the school, or other widely available help from private and public sources, could help save other families from similar situations. “My kid would not be the kid she is today if we did not have the scholarship support to send her to St. Mary’s,” says Brittany. “She really has flourished into an amazing child.”
Picciotti-Bayer interviewed Brittany and other parents of children benefiting from tuition assistance for an amicus brief just filed at the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief was filed by the Catholic Association in support of a challenge to a Montana Supreme Court decision that religious schools cannot benefit from public tuition aids — including tax credits for people donating to private scholarship funds. (The Institute for Justice is representing moms of Montana.) The case, Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Taxation, has the potential to throw out anti-Catholic Blaine amendments that remain in many state constitutions. Such a decision could change children’s lives in America.
Other parents Picciotti-Bayer profiled include the Schye family, who had sent three children to public schools, but whose 9-year-old with Down syndrome, Kellan, needed something else. His public-school situation was “traumatic,” his mother says. By contrast, when he went to St. Francis school, some eighth-grade boys would wait for Kellan’s arrival every morning, giving him “hugs and high-fives” as he entered school. He was immediately a welcome part of the community and his needs were attended to. If he needed extra time, including eating lunch, he would get it. School staff and families rallied for him when he competed in his first Special Olympics. A teacher arranged the transportation, and parents even chipped in to get pizza for him and the three second-grade classes who came to cheer him on. The flexibility and love at St. Francis for Kellan is a “huge blessing” for the whole Schye family. “We have peace of mind now that Kellan is where he belongs,” his mother says.
Some but not all of the parents Picciotti-Bayer interviewed are Catholic. Catholic schools serve all, and in some settings, including Montana, most students are non-Catholic. Parents choose these schools because of the missionary, vocational approach to education the staff has. The families Picciotti-Bayer talked to experienced religious education as the leaven it is: communities where human dignity is respected and served in gratitude for the gift of life.
Not only is it worth a prayer that this case winds up a win for religious liberty and school choice — for children across the country who shouldn’t be deprived of their best chance at a good life — but also that it reinvigorates Catholic education and our collective need for it. A few years ago, the book “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America” made the case that, statistically, when a Catholic school closes, social capital — “the web of connections and trust between people” — declines.
Catholic schools have been closing, and we see the deterioration in our culture. Let’s do everything we can to ensure families have access to the good ones in operation. A Supreme Court win for these Montana families would be no small dose of hope — for family life, freedom and the health of our nation.