The Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC-based public interest law firm that is the nation’s leading legal defender of school choice, announced on April 16 that it will defend the Southeast Delaware County school choice program against a court challenge filed earlier the same day by the Pennsylvania teachers union.
Pennsylvania thus becomes the sixth state–after Arizona, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin–where the Institute is fighting a court battle for school choice.
“The teachers union’s lawsuit has no merit,” declared Clint Bolick, the Institute’s litigation director. “It merely shows that the Pennsylvania Education Association values jobs above children’s education.” He added, “the special interest groups are ganging up to try to take choice away from parents.”
The Southeast Delaware County school board’s program provides reimbursements ranging from $250 to $1,000 for parents who send their children to private schools or to public schools outside the Southeast Delco district. The program allows parents to select religiously affiliated schools for their children. The board approved the program on March 18 to save costs and to promote competition and parental choice. (See “Gov. Ridge Supports Local Scholarship Plan in Pa.,” School Reform News, April 1998.)
“Southeast Delco is taking this commonsense approach to avoid the educational breakdown and financial costs that come from overcrowding,” Bolick said. “By affording parents the option to select the school–public, private or parochial–that best meets their children’s needs, the school district takes pressure off the system and may well avoid the huge costs of constructing new school buildings.”
Although School Board President Mary Carol Flemming has made it clear that she is prepared to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court if necessary, the limited challenge filed by the teachers union indicates that choice opponents do not want the voucher debate to reach that forum. The lawsuit raises no First Amendment claims but simply alleges that the program exceeds the school board’s authority and that it violates various state constitutional provisions related to private or religious school expenditures.
“This is the first indication that our opponents are terrified of the U.S. Supreme Court,” noted Bolick. “They have made a major concession in not making a First Amendment claim in this lawsuit.”
Although the Institute must respond to the complaint within 20 days, the lawsuit is unlikely to be resolved quickly. The challenge was filed in Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas and will take considerable time to work its way through the legal system.
The Institute for Justice will represent the school district free of charge, and the school board’s attorney, Robert DiOrio of Media, Pennsylvania, will serve as local counsel.
In addition to the Pennsylvania case, the Institute for Justice is currently litigating school choice cases in Arizona, Maine, Ohio, Wisconsin and Vermont. The legal issues in all of those cases revolve around the participation of religious schools in publicly funded school choice programs. The Institute seeks to vindicate the principle that such participation is constitutional in neutral school choice programs, where public funds flow to religious schools only as the result of the independent decisions of participating parents, not from decisions of the government.
“The fate of school choice hangs in the balance in these cases,” declared Bolick. “These cases will decide, at long last, whether our nation finally will deliver on its promise of equal educational opportunities for school children who desperately need them.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].