(Indianapolis, Ind.) – The most expansive school voucher program in the nation will continue after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in its favor Tuesday.
In a 5-0 opinion, the justices ruled that the Indiana Choice Scholarship program does not violate the Indiana Constitution.
“We find that the only direct beneficiaries of the school voucher program are the participating parents and their children, and not religious schools,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote in the court’s opinion.
The Indiana School Choice program created by the 2011 law allows students to apply for publicly-funded vouchers to be used towards tuition at private schools, many of which are religion focused or organized.
A group of educators including Switzerland County Schools Superintendent Mike Jones and backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit in Marion Circuit Court later in 2011. It named former Governor Mitch Daniels, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, and others as defendants.
The plaintiffs argued that the law was unconstitutional on its face. Even before reaching the state Supreme Court, the law was upheld by the Marion County court and the Indiana Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit contended that the voucher law violated Article 8, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution, which requires the Indiana General Assembly “to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools,” did not allow the state to fund education through any other means than public education.
“The school voucher program does not replace the public school system, which remains in place and available to all Indiana schoolchildren in accordance with the dictates of the Education Clause,” Dickson wrote in the opinion.
The lawsuit also challenged that the law violated Article 1, Section 6 and Section 4 of the state constitution: “no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.” In essence, the law violated a separation of church and state, the plaintiffs argued, and the program sent taxpayer money to religious institutions.
More than 90 percent of the private institutions accepting the school vouchers as tuition are religion-based.
“The religious liberty protections addressed by Section 4 prohibited government compulsion of individuals and was neither intended nor understood to limit government expenditures, which is addressed by Section 6,” Dickson said, later noting that the program is voluntary.
The court found it inconceivable that the framers and ratifiers of the Indiana Constitution intended to expansively prohibit any government expenditures from which a religious institution benefits.
“For example, fire and police protection, municipal water and sewage service, sidewalks and streets, and the like. 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,” wrote Dickson.
The chief justice added that the court’s decision is not a determination of the program’s public policy merits. Plaintiff and Indiana State Teachers Association Vice President Teresa Meredith said the law is not goof public policy.
"Just because the Indiana Supreme Court says that this program is constitutional, doesn't make them a good idea. Vouchers are not good policy or good reform. ISTA will continue to side with the vast majority of Hoosier parents who want good public schools in their communities," Meredith said in a statement following Tuesday's ruling.
Conversely, thge pro-voucher Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dick Komer said the court's decision should end the voucher debate.
“The Indiana Supreme Court’s well-reasoned decision puts an end to the debate over school choice’s constitutionality in Indiana. Just as importantly, this decision will have national implications. This is because the Court’s reasoning will be highly persuasive to other state courts that evaluate the constitutionality of their state’s school choice program,” Komer said.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence also welcomed the court ruling.
"I have long believed that parents should be able to choose where their children go to school, regardless of their income. Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has unanimously upheld this important program, we must continue to find ways to expand educational opportunities for all Indiana families," Pence said.
More than 9,000 students across the state are participating in the Indiana Choice Scholarship program this school year. Enrollment could grow as Indiana lawmakers consider measures to expand eligibility. The law currently requires voucher recipients to first attend a year of public school, but changes are proposed that would immediately open the program to kindergartener and siblings of current voucher students.