March 26, 2013

Indiana Supreme Court upholds voucher program

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Last year, PLF filed an amicus brief supporting the constitutionality of Indiana’s voucher program. Today, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion holding that the program is indeed constitutional.  Indiana’s voucher program is one of the most expansive school choice reforms in the country, permitting any free- or reduced-lunch eligible child to receive a voucher to attend a private school – religious or not.  The school choice scholarship program is only two years old, but already there are 9,324 low- and middle-income families participating.

Challenging the program, a group of state taxpayers funded by a teachers’ union, filed suit in May 2011. The suit alleged that the voucher program violated the Indiana Constitution, which requires the state “to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools.” The plaintiffs claimed that allowing students to choose a private school somehow violated this duty.  (A similar argument overturned Florida’s opportunity scholarship program.)  Fortunately, however, the Indiana Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting that it was inconsistent with the plain text of the state’s Constitution.

The Plaintiffs also alleged that the voucher program violated the state Constitution’s provision forbidding the state from compelling individuals to support “any place of worship” or “ministry,”  and another provision forbidding the state from drawing money from the treasury for the benefit of a religious or theological institution.  The court rejected these arguments, noting that government expenditures frequently benefit religious institutions, “for example, fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service” all benefit religious institutions:

Certainly religious or theological institutions may derive relatively substantial benefits from such municipal services. But the primary beneficiary is the public, both the public affiliated with the religious or theological institution, and the general public.

The court explained that such benefits were ancillary to the substantial benefits received by families:

The direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are the families of eligible students and not the schools selected by the parents for their children to attend. The voucher program does not directly fund religious activities because no funds may be dispersed to any program eligible school without the private, independent selection by the parents of a program-eligible student. Participation in the voucher program is entirely voluntary for parents of eligible students.

The court’s decision today is good news for the thousands of families who seek educational options for their children beyond their local public school.  It is also encouraging for school choice programs in other states.  As PLF attorney, Lana Harfoush wrote last week, PLF plans to file an amicus brief supporting challenges to New Hampshire’s school choice program.  Hopefully, victories like this one, will provide more support for other states to open up the school house doors for children to find the school that best fits their educational needs.

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