PLF files brief in the US Supreme Court on school choice


Author: Joshua Thompson

Last week PLF filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.   This case marks the first time the Supreme Court will rule on an Establishment Clause challenge to a school choice program since its landmark decision in Zelman v. Simmons-HarrisArizona Christan School is bound to have profound impact on the constitutionality of school choice programs throughout the country.

Eight years ago in Zelman, the Court held that when Ohio gave vouchers to parents, who in turn chose to send their kid to a religious school, the state’s action did not violate the First Amendment.  The Court held that:

[W]here a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.

The Arizona Program now before the Supreme Court is even more attenuated than the Program at issue in Zelman.   Arizona provides a tax break (up to $500) to individuals, if they choose to donate to a school tuition organization (STO).  STOs offer scholarships to students to attend private schools (both sectarian and secular).  Parents can then apply to a an STO for a voucher for their child.  Judge O’Scannlain summed up the multiple layers of choice inherent in the Arizona Program:

Multiple layers of private, individual choice separate the state from any religious entanglement: the “government itself” is at least four times removed from any aid to religious organizations. First, an individual or group of individuals must choose to create an STO. Second, that STO must then decide to provide scholarships to religious schools. Third, taxpayers have to contribute to the STO in question. Finally, parents need to apply for a scholarship for their student.

Thus, for the same reasons that the school choice program was upheld in Zelman (neutrality towards religion and independent private choice), the Court should also uphold the Arizona voucher program.   And it is a good thing too.  PLF devoted the majority of its amicus brief to showing the Court the benefits of allowing choice in education.  Since the Court’s landmark decision in Zelman, states have been experimenting with choice in education, and the results have been overwhelming.  Parents, students, and taxpayers have reaped countless benefits from the increase in school choice.  Here is a sampling of PLF’s brief:

Without parental choice, schools “lack the positive incentive for better performance that most other types of service institutions take for granted.” Forster Article at 11. Just as monopolies “provide poor quality because they have little incentive to serve their clients well[,]” so too, education services and schools’ responsiveness to consumer demand deteriorates when suppliers are isolated from consumer preferences. Id. at 12. School choice programs break that monopoly, giving parents options and mobility, thereby disciplining inadequate schools and encouraging them to create a better learning environment for students. Thus, even public school students without vouchers benefit from school choice because these programs create competition among the existing public schools.

Arizona Christian Schools is sure to be a landmark Establishment Clause case in the school choice arena, and PLF is at the forefront of the battle for freedom from the government-controlled education monopoly.