The U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to school vouchers in the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, clearing the way for states to create programs that provide public funding for religious schools.
But the Zelman decision addressed a specific program that served children from poor families in Cleveland. And the voucher programs that have proliferated in the past 15 years look very different and serve different purposes from the local Cleveland program.
The court ruled 5-4 that the Cleveland voucher program didn’t constitute a state endorsement of religion – and thus a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment – because the tuition vouchers went to the students’ parents, who then directed the funding to the schools they chose.
Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson relied on similar reasoning in Meredith v. Pence, the March 2013 state Supreme Court ruling that found Indiana’s voucher program did not violate the state constitution’s ban on state funding for religious organizations.
But some of the justifications the Supreme Court cited for supporting vouchers in Zelman don’t apply to many of the two dozen or so voucher programs that now operate in 15 states, with more likely to come.