by Gloria Romero
The school-choice movement has just surmounted one of its most pervasive challenges. A unanimous Indiana Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that state’s voucher program, which makes some 500,000 low- and middle-income kids (or, about 62 percent of its families) eligible for state aid to help pay for a private or religious school. The decision cuts to the core of the most profound education debate: What, exactly, does “public” mean in “public education” and who decides?
The court ruled that Indiana is serving valid educational purposes, both by maintaining a traditional public school system and by providing options to it. In other words, that government’s role is to ensure that essential services are available to the people – but the government itself does not always need to be the actual provider.
Thus, with voucher laws such as Indiana’s, “public” money follows the “public,” which is the family directly – not the “publicly” operated schoolhouse. Hence, families get to choose where to spend the public money: on a schooling choice made by them, or on a schooling choice made by a government official.
Historically, the fight over funding in K-12 public education has been interpreted as the strict allocation of public, taxpayer dollars to publicly operated institutions only. Essentially, this has resulted in the protection of monopoly rights of government-run schools. Students are assigned by government officials to a “local” public school, based on ZIP code. This ZIP code-restricted system has largely given rise to today’s parent empowerment movement, where more and more parents – especially in inner cities – have fought back against a system that not only assigns them to a particular school, but restricts them from leaving – even if that school chronically underperforms.
Indeed, few incentives exist to transform these schools, which sometimes seem to operate more as massive public-works programs for adults. Charter schools, open-enrollment policies and parent trigger laws have all been based on the fight for greater parent rights in public education.