Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

One Giant Leap for School Choice

Dave Larsen


April 12, 2013

By Dave Larsen

School choice advocates who hang out in the neighborhood of voucher support felt the earth move recently. The epicenter is in America’s heartland.

The focus of what the Center for Public Justice believes about education, as stated in one of its Guidelines for Government and Citizenship is on parental responsibility and the proper role of government. Parents carry the primary responsibility for educating their children. Government ought to provide just and equitable access to quality education for each and every child. At present, as the guideline observes, government “fails to do justice when it does not fund equally all of the schooling option it certifies.” Parents who choose to educate their children in non-government schools do not have access to public funding. From the Center’s viewpoint, a voucher system such as those found in most democratic nations around the world may be the best way to achieve justice in education. 

This opinion was reinforced in a recent Indiana Supreme Court decision. The current voucher program in Indiana is aimed at low and middle income families who may carry their funding to private, including faith-based, schools. In its first year of operation 4,000 students benefited from the program; this year it expanded to over 9,400 students. Nationally, the Indiana program is one of the largest in operation.

While a provision of the Indiana Constitution prohibits state funding “for the benefit of any religious or theological institution,” the Court found that “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.” All five of the justices ruled in favor of this understanding.

The decision is seen as one of the more significant recent developments because of the legal precedent it sets and the similarities between Indiana’s constitution and other state constitutions on the point of who may receive state funding. Because parents receive the benefits and not primarily religious institutions, the court ruled that the public is really the primary and ultimate beneficiary. As the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial in response to the Indiana decision: “No, plaintiffs, you're wrong — publicly funded education vouchers do not unconstitutionally divert public money to religious schools.” Many other commentators noted that the Indiana ruling echoed a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a voucher program in Cleveland.

With education reform a national priority, the voices for school vouchers have been too often marginalized, especially with the growth of the charter school movement and the massive marketing effort charter operators are able to marshal. Opposition from teachers’ unions to charter schools and voucher programs is vocal and well funded also. Perhaps a new day is dawning with this important ruling from the Hoosier state. The fact that the ruling seems to recognize the essential principles identified by the Center for Public Justice is all the more encouraging—and satisfying. For those among us who’ve worked patiently for many years to see progress of this sort, we say “congratulations” and “thank you.” And now we wait to see if there will be a positive, justice-focused aftershock.

Dave Larsen is the Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”