A Victory for Educational Choice

November 20, 2009

In October, the Institute for Justice scored an important victory over the state of Washington’s Blaine Amendment when the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction repealed a ban on special education services at religious schools. For years, the state’s senseless ban had forced parents like IJ clients Shari DeBoom, Margaret Hamilton and Dee Apodaca into an impossible choice: Forgo either the school they believe is best for their child or the services their child needs to learn.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government gives funds to the states to provide special education to children with disabilities. The IDEA requires that school districts spend a portion of these funds on services for children whose parents choose private schools—including religious schools—and it expects the services to be provided at the child’s school, where they will be of greatest benefit to the child.

For years, however, Washington prohibited school districts from providing IDEA services on the campuses of religious schools. Children enrolled at public and non-religious private schools could receive services onsite, but children whose parents chose religious schools were forced to travel offsite to some “nonsectarian” location in order to access the help they needed.

Not only was this stigmatizing for children with special needs, it rendered some services completely useless. For example, Shari DeBoom’s son, Michael, was eligible for services under the IDEA, including a specially equipped laptop for note-taking, but under the old regulations, he was not allowed use it at the school his parents had chosen for him, Lynden Christian, simply because it is a religious school. Yet a laptop for taking notes is only useful in the classroom where notes must be taken.

Likewise, Margaret Hamilton’s 10-year-old son, Skyler, in remission from brain cancer, and Dee Apodaca’s daughter, Rachael, who has Down syndrome, were eligible for IDEA services but could not access them at Lynden Christian.

Washington’s discriminatory ban was a stark example of the perverse modern-day effects of Blaine Amendments, the infamous relics of 19th-century anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry found in Washington’s and 36 other states’ constitutions—and used by teachers’ unions and others to attack school choice programs in court.

Last year, the IJ Washington Chapter (IJ-WA) joined with the DeBooms, Hamiltons and Apodacas to challenge the ban as a violation of the religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment, which demand government neutrality toward religion—neither favoring nor disfavoring those who freely choose religious options.

Soon after, the state superintendent’s office announced that it would reconsider the policy and, earlier this year, proposed regulations to repeal the ban. IJ-WA led an all-out effort to back the proposal, drawing support from the Washington State Catholic Conference and Archdiocese of Seattle, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Washington Federation of Independent Schools, Washington Policy Center and other groups and families, all of whom testified at a public hearing in support of repealing the ban. Finally, on October 1, the ban was ended.

“This is a victory not only for children with special needs but also for educational liberty,” said Michael Bindas, the IJ-WA attorney who spearheaded the case and the effort to repeal the ban. “The Institute for Justice is rolling back the prejudice and restrictions on individual liberty imposed by Blaine Amendments. This is important for anyone who wants greater parental choice in education.”

Freeing families across Washington like the DeBooms, Hamiltons and Apodacas to choose their child’s school without sacrificing the tools that help their child learn makes this IJ victory special indeed.

Lisa Knepper is the Institute’s director of strategic research marketing.

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