Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Vouchers II: Offering school choice

The U.S. Supreme Court's acceptance last week of a case challenging state laws that block school vouchers is another small victory for school choice.

These so-called "Blaine Amendments," in 37 states, prohibit the use of public funds at schools with religious affiliation.

Last summer, the high court said the U.S. Constitution did not bar vouchers from being used at religious schools in a Cleveland case. The court said students could use tax-supported vouchers at any school, including religious ones. Choice opponents quickly invoked "Blaine Amendments" in state constitutions to stop voucher programs in several states, including Florida and Washington. These bans are named for James G. Blaine, who unsuccessfully tried to amend the federal constitution to keep public money out of religious schools when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1875.

The libertarian non-profit Institute for Justice, which has led the legal fight nationwide for school choice, filed a wave of lawsuits challenging these state laws. It's the second step in clearing the path for true school choice nationwide. The case the court will hear is Davey v. Locke from Washington state.

This case has implications for school choice nationwide. The state bans are remnants of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant hysteria of the late 1800s. They arose as part of an effort to preserve Protestant dominance over public schools. They're based on prejudice and represent one of the remaining impediments to states enacting programs that allow parents the full range of choices - public, private and parochial schools.

We've said before that this is not just a public vs. private school argument. It's round two of a milestone civil rights battle. The old Blaine arguments used against vouchers are rooted in religious and class bigotry. Eventually the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to allow them to justify religious discrimination, much like Jim Crow arguments once were used to justify racial discrimination. The time has come. We applaud the court's decision to hear this important case.

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