Is This the School Choice Movement’s Biggest Win Ever?

The country’s broadest school voucher program is upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court.

A child holds up a sign supporting school vouchers in Virginia. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The push for vouchers has become a real battle across the country, and even in Washington.

On March 26, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled 5-0 to uphold the law that creates the country’s broadest school voucher program. This program is unique in that, unlike many programs that only allow low-income students to apply for vouchers, it also includes middle-class students.

Opponents of the voucher program, which began in 2011, argued that the law primarily benefits religious institutions. But the court rejected that claim, saying that vouchers give parents school choice.

“Kids and parents won today,” Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said in a statement. “With this announcement, Indiana should move immediately to make this opportunity available to more families, and other states should look at this victory and see that the education establishment’s ability to obstruct families’ freedom to choose is waning.”

For better or worse, vouchers are expanding in states across the country. There’s even a push in Washington for a federal voucher program.

Last week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, cosponsored an amendment to the Senate budget that would use $14.5 billion in current Title 1 funds to allow students to attend any public or private school they choose. Currently, Title I money is used for 11 million students who attend schools in impoverished areas at $1,300 per student.

Paul has several Republican cosponsors on the amendment, including Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, former secretary of education and now the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

“When dollars intended to help low-income children are diverted to other purposes, we deprive these children of their opportunity to attend a better school, which is the best way for them to move up the economic ladder,” Mr. Alexander, ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said during arguments about his amendment.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker wants to expand that state’s voucher program to nine more cities. Milwaukee currently has the nation’s largest voucher program based on the number of students enrolled in it.

Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning the state’s controversial voucher program created by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. The program’s opponents argued that the funding mechanism for last year’s statewide expansion is unconstitutional.

Two district courts have also ruled that Jindal’s program violates the state’s constitution. The Supreme Court is expected to rule within the next two months. However, the state’s legislative session begins in April, and proposals are likely to be introduced to overcome the court’s ruling. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers & School Employees are encouraging parents to call their state representatives to oppose such legislation.

Regardless of the controversy, the state’s superintendent of education said Wednesday that more parents are applying for vouchers, and the number of schools offering slots, are higher than a year ago.

The Indiana court ruling this week could be a landmark case for other states where voucher programs face legal challenges, legal scholars said.

The Institute for Justice, which helped to defend the Indiana law, said in a statement, “In unanimously upholding the Choice Scholarship Program, the Indiana Supreme Court has made it clear that school choice is perfectly consistent with the state constitution. The teachers’ unions tried to prevent parents from using Choice Scholarships to secure a quality education for their children, but the unions failed.”

The fight in Indiana now goes to the statehouse, where a bill to expand vouchers, is awaiting action in the state Senate.

“As State Superintendent, I will follow the court’s ruling and faithfully administer Indiana’s voucher program,” State School Superintendent Glenda Ritz said in a statement. “However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse.”

Comments ()