Court Battles Over Choice in Milwaukee and Vermont

Published May 1, 1998

A legal challenge to the Milwaukee school voucher program prompted a 16-bus caravan of choice supporters to travel from Milwaukee to Madison on March 4 to gather for a large school choice rally on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

The choir from Holy Redeemer School led the rally crowd in an uplifting rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Speeches by Brother Bob Smith of Messmer High School, Zakiya Courtney of Parents for School Choice, and Governor Tommy Thompson were delivered to rousing applause from the assembled parents and children.

Following the rally, Institute for Justice Litigation Director Clint Bolick argued before the Wisconsin Supreme Court to defend the voucher program. Adopted in 1990 to help low-income students escape Milwaukee’s failing public schools, the plan faces a concerted attack from lawyers representing the National Education Association, American Civil Liberties Union, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Less than a week later, on behalf of the Chittenden Town School Board, the Institute’s Senior Litigator, Dick Komer, was presenting the case for school choice before the state Supreme Court in Vermont. Challenging the state Department of Education’s exclusion of religious schools from the state’s century-old “tuitioning” program, Komer argued that rural parents have the right to use their share of state funds to send their children to religiously affiliated schools.

Many of Vermont’s small towns do not have their own public high schools, but instead rely on the state’s school tuition program to provide their children with access to a quality education. Under the tuitioning program, rural parents freely select the public or private school–in-state or out-of-state–that best meets their children’s needs, and the town then pays the tuition. The state law establishing the tuition system does not distinguish between secular and religiously affiliated schools.

“Government cannot act to advance religion, but neither can it act to inhibit religion,” said Komer. “The state should treat the kids attending religiously affiliated school the same as it does all other children.”