Supreme Victory for School Choice in Indiana

John Kramer
John Kramer · March 26, 2013

Arlington, Va.—In a landmark legal decision issued today, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the state’s Choice Scholarship Program does not violate the Indiana Constitution. In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected every legal claim brought by the plaintiffs—who are supported by both state and national teachers’ unions—against the program, and it ruled in favor of both the state and two parents, Heather Coffy and Monica Poindexter, who have intervened in the lawsuit in defense of the program. Those parents, who use Choice Scholarships to send their children to private schools, are represented in the case by the Institute for Justice.

“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 Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bert Gall, who argued alongside Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher for the constitutionality of the program before the Indiana Supreme Court at its hearing on the case this past November. “The teachers’ unions tried to prevent parents from using Choice Scholarships to secure a quality education for their children, but the unions failed.”

The Court’s decision marks the end of the unions’ lawsuit, which was filed in June 2011. There can be no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court because the Indiana Supreme Court is the final arbiter on the meaning of the state constitution. It also means that the approximately 9,000 children who are currently benefiting from Choice Scholarships can remain in the schools their parents have selected for them. Moreover, with the legal threat to the program eliminated, the door is open for all families eligible for the program—approximately 62 percent of Indiana families—to use Choice Scholarships in the 2013-14 school year. This would make the program the largest school choice program in the nation.

In rejecting the argument of the plaintiffs that the Choice Scholarship Program improperly benefits private religious schools, the Court held that the program “provide[s] lower-income Indiana families with the educational options generally available primarily to higher-income Indiana families. The result is a direct benefit to these lower-income families—the provision of a wider array of education options, a valid secular purpose. Any benefit to program-eligible schools, religious or non-religious, derives from the private, independent choice of the parents of program-eligible students, not the decree of the state, and is thus ancillary and incidental to the benefit conferred on these families.”

IJ client and school choice mom Heather Coffy, whose three children have received Choice Scholarships, said, “What a great day for Indiana families. Because of today’s decision, the Choice Scholarship Program will continue to grow so that more and more parents across the state can choose the schools for their kids that best suit their educational needs. And for me, that starts with my own kids.”

IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer said, “The Indiana Supreme Court’s well-reasoned decision puts an end to the debate over school choice’s constitutionality in Indiana. Just as importantly, this decision will have national implications. This is because the Court’s reasoning will be highly persuasive to other state courts that evaluate the constitutionality of their state’s school choice program.”

Today’s decision is consistent not only with the Indiana Constitution, but also with Indiana’s long tradition—documented in a recent study “Opening the Schoolhouse Doors: Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program Extends Long History Of Choice-Based Aid”—of providing choice-based aid to students who choose to attend private schools and colleges. A ruling against the Choice Scholarship Program would have placed in jeopardy similar scholarship programs at the higher-education level (such as the Frank O’Bannon Grant Program), as well as textbook and transportation-assistance programs for children who attend private schools.

The Institute for Justice has a long history of successfully defending school choice from legal attacks. IJ represented intervening parents in the successful defense of:

  • Arizona’s Individual Scholarship Tax Credit Program, Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn and Kotterman v. Killian;
  • Ohio’s Pilot Scholarship Program, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris and Simmons-Harris v. Goff;
  • Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, Jackson v. Benson;
  • Arizona’s Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit Program, Green v. Garriott; and
  • Illinois’ Educational Expenses Tax Credit Program, Toney v. Bower and Griffith v. Bower.

“Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is about providing true educational choice to Indiana families,” said Chip Mellor, the Institute’s president and general counsel. “Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has held that the program is constitutional, you’ll see the educational market begin to grow and flourish in Indiana. Considering the high percentage of families this program will be open to, you’re going to see dynamic changes in how education is delivered. The days of one-size-fits-all education will rightfully be a thing of the past.”