Could Indiana’s school voucher ruling influence other states?

A 2007 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found “little or no indication” that students in Milwaukee public schools with more school choice possibilities nearby made greater year-to-year gains than students in other schools.

EPI found “a large improvement” in student achievement in the two years after the 1998 expansion of the city’s voucher program to include religious schools. But it also found that “little positive improvement took place in later years, even as enrollment declined in Milwaukee’s neighborhood schools and the number of voucher applications continued to increase.”

“We speculate that school personnel in Milwaukee, confronting the possibility of greater competition, began paying much greater attention to the state test and focusing on improving students’ performance on the test,” EPI researchers wrote in their 2007 study. “Once having done that, however, it was much more difficult to make further improvements, despite increased competition from voucher and charter schools.”

They added: “We … conclude that, for the choice argument to be convincing, advocates need to show more consistent and sustained improvements in student learning and should be able to explain at the operational level how choice induces schools to improve student performance.”

The U.S. Supreme Court kicked the fight over school vouchers to the states in a split 2002 ruling, in which conservative members led by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said vouchers do not violate the U.S. Constitution’s clause separating church and state. That left supporters and opponents to fight over whether school voucher laws violated similar clauses in state constitutions.

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Indiana joins states like Louisiana and Wisconsin, where voucher or voucher-style laws have been upheld. But Arizona and Florida’s courts have ruled against vouchers, and the issue remains to be resolved in other states.

Supporters say the Indiana ruling could influence courts in other states because the Indiana constitution contains a clause copied by many states in the mid-1800s in an effort to bar public aid for Catholic schools. The so-called “Blaine Amendment” was meant at the time to keep public money flowing to Protestant-dominated public schools.

That means the Indiana ruling could apply anywhere with a “Blaine” law, Gall said.

“For us, and for the Indiana Supreme Court, the Blaine Amendment in Indiana basically prevented spending for the benefit of religious institutions. And the Indiana Supreme Court said ‘No, this is spending for the benefit of parents and students,'” he said.

Opponents downplayed the ruling. Brenda Pike, executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) and a lead plaintiff in the case, said the group now considers vouchers as settled law in Indiana. But, she added, Indiana’s borders are where the ruling’s impact ends.

(Next page: How popular is Indiana’s voucher law among the state’s citizens?)

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