You know when Cher decides to weigh in on something, it’s a pretty big deal. School choice has been the hot topic of late, prompted by the recent hearings for the president’s Education Secretary pick, Betsy DeVos. DeVos has received a tremendous amount of criticism for her ardent support of school choice. Unfortunately, her critics have focused on guns and grizzly bears or the finer points of convoluted federal law rather than engaging with ideas about what school choice programs could do to improve the landscape of American education.
For families across the country, school choice programs mean the difference between having their children trapped in an underperforming government school (selected by a distant bureaucrat and based only on their home address) and choosing an environment that meets their children’s unique educational needs. The Supreme Court long ago recognized the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children, but modern public school systems all too often deprive parents of their ability to exercise that right. Charters, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships are all ways to put parents back in the driver’s seat.
Empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children is reason enough to support school choice programs. But the positive outcomes of school choice extend well beyond that. Introducing competition into education means that schools no longer have captive customers—if a school is not doing a good job, students can pick up and take their money elsewhere. Empirical studies have revealed that this leads to improved educational outcomes for school choice participants, as well as for students in public schools. School choice leads to higher graduation rates, more parental involvement in education, and it even saves taxpayers money.
We highlighted these facts and more in our recent friend of the court brief to the Georgia Supreme Court in Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue. Anti-school choice activists challenged Georgia’s immensely popular school choice program under various provisions of the Georgia Constitution. The program enables citizens and businesses to earn tax credits in return for making donations to private school choice charities. The charities in turn award scholarships to students, who may use them towards tuition and fees of the private school of their parents’ choice.
Tax credit programs like Georgia’s are consistently challenged under both state and Federal Establishment Clauses, constitutional provisions that prohibit the government from spending money to support religion. While it is true that parents may select any private school—including sectarian institutions—these Establishment Clause claims generally fail because it is private money being spent at the schools, not government money. And the money only reaches religious organizations through the exercise of individual choice, not state action. Programs like Georgia’s are entirely neutral with respect to religion and the benefits are intended to flow to students and their families, not the religious organizations themselves.
Fortunately, the law is clearly on the side of choice—no court in the country has accepted arguments like those of the plaintiffs in Gaddy. And based on the questions from the Georgia Supreme Court Justices in oral arguments yesterday, it seems likely that the anti-school choice crusaders will again fail to tear down a beneficial school choice program.