INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld Indiana’s school voucher program, paving the way for a possible expansion.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday morning, the court rejected claims that the Choice Scholarship Program violated provisions of the Indiana Constitution regarding education and religion.
“Finding that the challengers have not satisfied the high burden required to invalidate a statute on constitutional grounds, we affirm the trial court’s judgment upholding the constitutionality of the statutory voucher program,” the court wrote in its 22-page opinion.
The court said the state constitution doesn’t intend to deprive religious institutions from receiving indirect government services like fire and police protection, water and sewage and sidewalks and streets. The court argued that the constitution only prohibits expenditures that directly benefit religious institutions, concluding that school vouchers benefit eligible families and not the schools families choose to attend.
“The voucher program expenditures do not directly benefit religious schools but rather directly benefit lower-income families with school children by providing an opportunity for such children to attend non-public schools if desired,” the court wrote. “The prohibition against government expenditures to benefit religious or theological institutions does not apply to institutions and programs providing primary and secondary education.”
The court also said that its ruling simply decided the legal matters surrounding the legality of school vouchers and was not a comment on their public policy merits.
“Whether the Indiana program is wise educational or public policy is not a consideration germane to the narrow issues of constitutional law that are before us,” the court wrote.
The case was originally brought in 2011 against Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and others by a group of plaintiffs that included Glenda Ritz. Subsequently, Ritz was elected to replace Bennett and Mike Pence was elected to replace Daniels. Ritz and Pence were then substituted as defendants and Ritz removed as a plaintiff.
Ritz said she was disappointed with the ruling but vowed to perform her duties faithfully.
“While I have great respect for the court, I am disappointed in today’s decision. As State Superintendent, I will follow the court’s ruling and faithfully administer Indiana’s voucher program,” she said in a statement. “However, I personally believe that public dollars should go to public schools, and I encourage Hoosiers to send that message to their representatives in the Statehouse.”
The Indiana State Teachers Association also expressed disappointment with the court’s decision.
“The vast majority of the 9,000 Indiana students receiving taxpayer-supported vouchers attend religious schools. As a public educator, I still believe that funneling public money into religious institutions is a clear violation of the Indiana Constitution,” said Teresa Meredith, ISTA vice president and a plaintiff in the case.
The ISTA contends that the Choice Scholarship Program takes money away from public schools to benefit private institutions.
“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.
Senior Attorney Bert Gall of the Institute for Justice called the ruling a victory for parents and a defeat for teachers’ unions.
“Today’s decision is a major and decisive win for Indiana parents and students. In unanimously upholding the Choice Scholarship Program, the Indiana Supreme Court has made it clear that school choice is perfectly consistent with the state constitution,” said Gall, who argued alongside Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher for the constitutionality of the program before the Indiana Supreme Court during a November hearing.
“The teachers’ unions tried to prevent parents from using Choice Scholarships to secure a quality education for their children, but the unions failed,” Gall continued.
Gov. Mike Pence issued the following statement regarding the court’s decision upholding school vouchers:
“I welcome the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Indiana’s school choice program. 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.”
The ruling cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court because the Indiana Supreme Court has the final say on interpretation of the state constitution.