School voucher supporters everywhere, especially those waiting on the courts to weigh in on the constitutionality of choice programs, have a new reason to celebrate today after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the state's broad voucher program was legal. In a unanimous 5-0 decision, the Court cleared a 2011 voucher law that offered taxpayer-funded scholarships to middle- and low-income students to be used for tuition at a school of their choice.
The decision also paved the way for the state's legislators to begin the debate over expanding the program.
According to voucher supporters who cheered the decision, the finding will likely have an impact in places other than Indiana. Bert Gall, the senior attorney for Institute for Justice who worked to defend the voucher program, said that he expects the ruling to be hugely influential.
The Indiana voucher program, passed by the Legislature in 2011, is the most sweeping in the nation and the biggest test yet of the conservative Republican idea that giving families choice creates a greater incentive for public schools to improve. Unlike voucher programs in other states, which are limited to poor families and failing school districts, the Indiana program is open to a much broader range of people, including parents with household incomes of up to nearly $64,000 for a family of four.
Jeff Reed, spokesman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said 530,000 Indiana students qualify for vouchers, although only 9,000 currently receive them. Public school officials fear the eventual loss of thousands of students, especially those from the middle class, along with the state money that comes with them.
Until and unless the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court changes, the subject of voucher programs is unlikely to get a rehearing there after a 2002 decision found that such programs didn't violate the separation between church and state. Therefore, all legal wrangling over the choice scholarship programs – as they're frequently known – will take place in state courts, which is why the Indiana decision was so momentous.
With the ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court is the third such court to find vouchers comply with the demands of the constitution of the state in question, joining earlier decisions rendered in Louisiana and Wisconsin. While the voucher measures were rejected in Arizona and Florida, the jury – or the court in this case – is still out on a number of similar programs across the country.
Supporters say the Indiana ruling could influence courts in other states because the Indiana constitution contains a clause copied by many states in the mid-1800s in an effort to bar public aid for Catholic schools. The so-called "Blaine Amendment" was meant at the time to keep public money flowing to Protestant-dominated public schools. That means the Indiana ruling could apply anywhere with a "Blaine" law, Gall said.
"For us, and for the Indiana Supreme Court, the Blaine Amendment in Indiana basically prevented spending for the benefit of religious institutions. And the Indiana Supreme Court said âNo, this is spending for the benefit of parents and students,'" he said.