January 28, 2013

School Choice Week 2013: An introduction

By Joshua P. Thompson Senior Attorney

Yesterday marked the first day of School Choice Week 2013.  School choice is the remarkable idea that parents should have the freedom to choose where their children are educated. School choice rejects the idea of government run, one-size-fits-all, “Solidarity Forever” education. “School choice gives parents the freedom to choose a school based on its quality and their child’s needs, not their home address.” School Choice Week aims to raise awareness of school choice programs across the country, and give choice to some of the 49 million students who still have no choice.

School choice can take many forms.  Most people associate school choice with “vouchers.” Vouchers are certificates given directly to parents by the state in order to allow children to attend private schools. The first voucher program in the country — and the start of the school choice movement — was the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in my home state of Wisconsin. There, low income Milwaukee parents can receive a voucher to send their child to a private (sometimes religious) school. (The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was recently expanded to Racine.) In 1998, the Milwaukee Program was held constitutional in Jackson v. Benson, a landmark case by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That court ruled that the Milwaukee Program was constitutional under both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions. Four years later, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court held that such programs did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

Voucher programs are just the tip of the school choice iceberg. One of the latest trends is for states to establish tax credit programs. These programs allow individuals (or corporations) to claim a tax credit for donations given to school tuition organizations. In turn, these tuition organizations must provide free scholarships to students to attend the school of their choice. The U.S. Supreme Court also held that these programs are constitutional in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn. As the Supreme Court rightly recognized, tax credit programs do not violate the Establishment Clause, because such an argument “assumes that income should be treated as government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands.” Ever since the Arizona Christian School decision, more states have been adopting tax credit programs.

In California, while we don’t have private school choice, we have the nation’s most extensive public school choice system. California’s charter schools are public, secular schools that give parents options to send their children to schools that operate (somewhat) outside of the traditional public school monopoly. While not ideal, charter schools are exploding in California, as parents look for affordable alternatives to failing public schools.

As the dream of school choice expands across the country, anti-choice groups are taking to the courts to halt parents’ ability to direct their child’s education. Whether powerful teachers’ unions or the ACLU, these groups are trying everything in their power to force students to attend one-size-fits-all public schools. Lawsuits are being brought against voucher programs, tax credit programs, and even charter school programs. Here at PLF, however, we stand with parents who dream of a better education for their children. We are fighting in courts across the country to ensure that these choice programs are upheld. We are going to battle against the teachers unions and the anti-choice groups. We have both the law and justice on our side. And we will continue to fight for school choice, until all of the nation’s children have educational choice.

As School Choice Week continues, be sure to check back here at the Liberty Blog for more stories on the legal battles for school choice.

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