School Choice Research and Litigation: A Winning Combination

March 24, 2014

When IJ Senior Attorney Bert Gall stepped up to the podium to defend Alabama’s two new school choice programs from legal attack by teachers’ unions, he was armed not only with solid legal arguments, but also with sound research to back them up. The day before the February hearing in front of a state trial judge, IJ released its latest strategic research report, Opening the Schoolhouse Doors: Tax Credits and Educational Access in Alabama, by Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter and Research Analyst Angela Erickson. The report puts the lie to the unions’ main argument and shows the broad damage a ruling against school choice would cause.

The unions claim, as they always do, that Alabama’s new tax credit programs violate the state constitution’s prohibition on funding religious institutions. This claim directly contradicts an Alabama Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s that upheld state-funded scholarships for students attending the college or university of their choice—including private and religious schools. The court reasoned, as IJ argues in defense of the tax credits, that the scholarships benefit students, not the schools they happen to choose.

Since then, IJ’s report finds, Alabama has operated seven similar programs that give students a free choice of public, private or religious schools, spending at least $296 million on awards to students and schools. One of those programs even benefitted public school teachers. For nearly two decades, the Technology Scholarship Program offered state support to teachers seeking graduate-level technology training at the school of their choice, including religious schools. A ruling against the tax credits would jeopardize at least six similar aid programs serving more than 15,000 students, as well as educational opportunities for Alabama children stuck in failing public schools.

Opening the Schoolhouse Doors is the ninth in a series of IJ studies that undercut teachers’ unions’ claims that school choice programs violate state constitutions. These reports have brought a unique dimension to IJ’s work, backing up our constitutional arguments before legislatures and courts with real-world data and showing that sound research and solid legal arguments can be a winning combination.

Lisa Knepper is an IJ director of strategic research.

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