School Vouchers Establish a Toehold

School Vouchers Establish a Toehold

On Tuesday, the Indiana state Supreme Court upheld the state's voucher program as constitutional. The court rejected the arguments of teachers union representatives and others that providing vouchers ran afoul of the state's constitutional duty to maintain a public school system and the prohibition of the use of state funds for religious purposes (80 percent of the schools in the voucher program are religious schools, according to CNN). You can read the opinion here [pdf].

The program's proponents hope that the case will set a precedent for school voucher systems across the country. What makes Indiana's program special is that it is the broadest such program in the nation. Enacted in 2011 under then-governor Mitch Daniels, it provides a voucher to any student in the state eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. The value of the voucher can range up to 90 percent of beneficiary's school district's cost per student, and it can be applied toward any accredited school.

Tuesday's court ruling ensures that school vouchers, a strong form of school choice, will be an entitlement for low- to middle-income residents of Indiana. Governor Mike Pence has indicated that he'll work to expand the program.

Although Indiana has pushed the idea of school vouchers farther than any other state, it is far from an isolated case. As Fernanda Santos and Motoko Rich outline in the New York Times, many other states and jurisdictions, mostly red states, are headed in the same direction.

This month, Alabama Republicans finagled a bill establishing education tax credits for students in failing schools. Last year, Arizona expanded eligibility for education savings accounts

Other states, including Florida and Tennessee, are currently pursuing large-scale voucher or tax credit programs. Governor Bobby Jindal's expansive plan for a statewide voucher program in Louisiana was struck down, but he is working on finding a way around the court ruling. School choice measures are under consideration in a number of other statehouses across the country.

While the states' adoption of vouchers and other school choice models has been slow, uneven, and mostly limited to red states, it's a significant development, and a sign of the direction that education policy is headed in the United States. Many blue states, tentatively and grudgingly, have accommodated charter schools, a trend welcomed and coaxed along by the Obama administration. Even as charters have gained prominence, though, broad-based voucher or tax credit programs like the one in place in Indiana have become the goal for red and even purple state legislatures.

Such programs are a new level of change for the education system and a more dire threat to entrenched interests in the field of education, especially teachers unions. Their reach is limited right now, but appears likely to grow over the next decade or so.

The fact that this dramatic change in the education sector has taken place at the state level has meant that the conversation about education policy remains relatively muted. The issue of K-12 reform, for example, has received nowhere near the volume of political activity or media coverage that health care reform has in the wake of President Obama's push for the PPACA. Yet, if other states follow the lead of states like Indiana and Lousiana over the coming years -- which, of course, is still a matter of speculation -- the resulting changes would reshape the American education system and American politics on a scale similar to that of Obamacare.

Joseph Lawler is editor of RealClearPolicy. He can be reached by email or on twitter.

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