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Publicly Funded Programs

Institute for Justice Leads Nationwide Fight to Protect Scholarships in Court

Publicly funded educational choice programs allocate state funds to families to pay for their children’s education, either partially or completely, at the school of their choice. Following IJ’s Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2020such programs must give parents the freedom of choosing between both secular and religious schools. 

  • Since its founding, the Institute for Justice has filed or intervened in 24lawsuits defending or seeking to expand publicly funded educational choice programs, including the landmark U.S. Supreme Court caseZelman v. Simmons-Harris. 
  • We defended the nation’s very first modern-day educational choice program, the Parental Choice Program in Milwaukee, and the fastest-growing scholarship system in the United States, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program. 
  • In 2016, IJ vindicated the constitutionality of Nevada’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program, the most expansive and innovative school choice program in the nation 
  • In 15 states and Washington, D.C., an estimated 218,000 students receive publicly funded scholarships, giving them a chance to better succeed and escape failing schools. 

IJ has fought to protect nearly every publicly funded educational choice program in the country from outside attacks. In IJ’s 2002 U.S. Supreme Court victory in Zelman v. Simmons-Harristhe Court heldthat publicly funded educational choice programs are indeed constitutional, even when parents have the option to choose religious schools. The Supreme Court ruled that such programs are perfectly permissible under 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 they satisfy two criteria. 

First, the program must be religiously neutral, neither favoring nor disfavoring religious options. Religious schools, therefore, can be considered alongside secular schools. Second, the program must be driven by the free and independent choice of parents. This demonstrates that educational choice benefits the parents and their children, not the schools they happen to choose.  

After Zelman protected educational choicprograms from federal constitutional challenges, opponents turned to state courts and state constitutions to try to thwart educational choice. Through our extensive litigation and legislative consulting efforts, we are determined to fend off these challenges and vindicate parents’ right to choose. 

IJ scored a significant victory on that front in Espinozawhen the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot apply their own constitutions to bar religious schools from educational choice programs. IJ is continuing to defend against new state court challenges to programs to ensure that parents who use them for their children have the full right to choose the educational option that is best for them. 

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