Catholic education officials and school-choice advocates are emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court’s April 4 ruling that upheld an Arizona law that provides tax credits for private-school tuition.
“We’re delighted with this ruling. We believe other states with similar programs will be strengthened by this,” said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association. Ristau told Our Sunday Visitor that the ruling will create “systemic change” in the country’s approach to educational planning, from preschool to the university.
Meanwhile, George A. Milot, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., said the ruling opens the possibility of a similar tax credit system being adopted in his state.
“We intend to move forward on this issue,” Milot told OSV. “It will be difficult to get passed, but it is something we feel students who have a financial need have a right to.”
This month, the high court, in a 5-4 vote, rejected arguments that the Arizona scholarship program — which provides private-school assistance through a $500 tax credit available to all taxpayers — was uncon-stitutional because it represented state support to religious schools.
The Supreme Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ case on procedural grounds, saying that they as taxpayers had not shown any direct harm or suffering as a result of the decade-long program.
The majority of the justices said they believed that privately funded scholarships, even when rewarded by tax credits, do not represent public spending on religious schools.
Coupled with the high court’s ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a 2002 case that upheld the constitutionality of a Cleveland school-voucher program, supporters of “school choice” say they have strong legal standing to push back against opponents who argue such programs violate the First Amendment’s protection against government establishment of religion.
Richard D. Komer, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest firm that defended the Arizona tax credit program, said in a statement that the high court’s decision “should embolden state legislators to move aggressively ahead with reforms that expand parental choice and empower parents to choose from among a wide array of public, and private and religious schools.”
“Every parent should carry copies of these decisions whenever they walk into a statehouse advocating for school choice,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of programs and state relations for the Foundation for Educational Choice, a school-choice think tank.
Hiner told OSV that the recent Supreme Court ruling “closes the door on scare tactics” used by opponents of voucher programs.
“Those parents have the power of the United States Supreme Court behind them now, saying they have a right to this, and that this is constitutional,” Hiner said.
However, because the high court dismissed the Arizona case on procedural grounds, the central argument over the constitutionality of vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs remains open, said Jesuit Father Gregory A. Kalscheur, a law professor at Boston College.
“The decision didn’t uphold the program on its merits. It just found the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the program,” said Father Kalscheur, adding that new plaintiffs could challenge the Arizona system if they could prove that it had hurt them, or that the program was skewed to certain religious schools.
Also, there is the question in many states that have more prohibitive restrictions against using public taxpayer dollars for religious institutions. Known as Blaine amendments, school-choice advocates would face tougher challenges in those states than they have on the federal level.
“The recent ruling makes it harder to challenge these programs in the federal courts, but what could happen in state courts remains unclear. This wouldn’t preclude cases being brought forward in other state courts,” Kalscheur told OSV.
“That question is still open. The Supreme Court didn’t decide that.”
Multiple published reports indicate voucher and tax credit programs are being debated in New Jersey, Minnesota and Indiana, where the State House last week passed a wide-ranging bill that would provide private-school vouchers to families that earn up to $60,000 a year.
In Massachusetts, the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education, a nonprofit organization comprised of educators and parents, plans to begin advocating for a tax credit system similar to Arizona’s, said Milot, the organization’s treasurer.
“We’ve been waiting for this decision,” Milot said. “We are excited.”
Kevin E. Schmiesing, a Catholic historian and research fellow at the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, agreed that the Supreme Court ruling is a hopeful sign for school-choice advocates, even considering the unresolved questions about individual state courts.
“Presumably, this will encourage and embolden them,” said Schmiesing, adding that the court’s ruling demonstrated a growing willingness to accept voucher programs.
“It’s a confirmation of a trend that has been in place for some time now. Given the way the Supreme Court is made up right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them overturn a state court ruling against these type of programs.”
Whether the Arizona system becomes a model for the school-choice movement remains to be seen.
Hiner said the Arizona approach is not the new paradigm because vouchers have already been found to be constitutional.
“I think the Supreme Court really removed speculation about any type of school choice,” she said.
Meanwhile, Schmiesing said he personally favors the Arizona model.
“Tax credits are better than vouchers in some ways,” he said.
“It creates a little bit of a buffer between government funding and the schools. The money never goes through a government entity. I think it is more politically viable for many reasons, and there seems to be a lot of support for it.”
Ristau said the ruling will help many parents who want to send their children to Catholic schools.
“We’re strong advocates for parents to choose the education they want to provide for their children,” she said. “It will have a good effect for us.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Magic Bullet (sidebar)
Kevin E. Schmiesing, a Catholic historian, says many Catholic school systems, which have struggled with declining enrollments in many parts of the country, stand to benefit if the school-choice movement gains added traction. But there’s a “but.”
“For some, this will be a shot in the arm,” he said. “But this is not a magic bullet, given that Catholic schools face many different challenges in different parts of the country, that include the loss of Catholic identity in some circumstances.”