Publicly Funded Scholarships

Institute for Justice Leads Nationwide Fight to Protect Scholarships in Court

Vouchers are scholarships granted to parents and directly funded by the government. Parents can then use these direct scholarships to partially or completely pay for their children’s education at the school of their choice. Like Pell Grants and the GI Bill, publicly funded scholarship programs often allow parents the option of choosing between both secular and religious schools.

  • Since its founding, the Institute for Justice has filed and intervened in 19 lawsuits defending direct scholarship programs, including the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.
  • We defended the nation’s very first modern-day school choice program, the Parental Choice Program in Milwaukee, and the fastest-growing scholarship system in the United States, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program.
  • By the end of 2015, IJ secured a crucial victory for school choice at the North Carolina Supreme Court and intervened to defend Nevada’s Education Savings Account, one of the most expansive programs in the nation.
  • In 12 states and Washington, D.C., an estimated 152,000 students receive direct scholarships, giving them a chance to better succeed and escape failing schools.

IJ has fought to protect nearly every voucher program in the country from outside attacks. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that direct scholarships were indeed constitutional when it upheld the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. The Supreme Court declared that voucher programs do not run afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” so long as the voucher programs satisfy at least three criteria.

First, a school choice program must be religiously neutral, neither favoring nor disfavoring religious options. Religious schools, therefore, can be considered alongside secular schools.  Second, a program must be driven by the free and independent choice of parents. This demonstrates that school choice primarily benefits the parents and their children, not the schools they so happen to choose. Finally, a school choice program must avoid “excessive entanglement” between government officials and schools.

Litigated by IJ, Zelman soon became the most significant education case since the Supreme Court famously struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. While Zelman protects direct scholarships from federal constitutional challenges, opponents still turn to state courts and state constitutions to thwart school choice. Through our extensive litigation and legislative consulting efforts, we are determined to fend off these challenges and vindicate parents’ right to choose.

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