School choice initiatives have the potential to rescue millions of American children currently trapped in failing public schools. Minority children suffer the most; many African-American and Hispanic students are trapped in school districts with the worst drop-out rates and lowest scores on academic achievement tests. Despite the unprecedented growth of school choice in recent years, significant obstacles remain that continue to hamper momentum.
School choice initiatives are consistently opposed by a powerful coalition of unions and left-wing interest groups. For instance, the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, poured millions of dollars into defeating what would have been one of the nation's first universal school choice program: a Utah initiative that would have made school scholarships available to families regardless of income. After the initiative passed in Utah's state legislature, it failed in a ballot referendum led and funded mostly by union operatives.
Far-left interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and People for the American Way, also oppose private school choice programs. The ACLU regularly initiates legal challenges against school choice laws and has publicly pressured U.S. congressmen to oppose adding private school options to federal education law.
Liberal politicians have also united at the state and national levels to block school choice legislation. One of the most recent examples of this were the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of liberal U.S. representatives to dismantle the D.C.-based Opportunity Scholarships program, which benefits many impoverished students and is widely supported by African-American leaders and parents. Destroying this program would have forced many underprivileged children to return to low-performing schools.
Liberal interest groups have taken advantage of obscure provisions within many state constitutions that prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools (known as "Blaine Amendments"). They use these provisions to file lawsuits in state courts, where judicial activists can interpret them in a restrictive way. As many as 30 states have this language, or similar provisions, in their constitutions. But, they do not reflect the spirit and principles within the U.S. Constitution. As a result, ongoing legal challenges to Blaine Amendments could gradually break down the obstacle of restrictive state laws.
Other states have clauses in their laws requiring education to be "uniform." Though this requirement has no direct relation to school choice and is vaguely worded, judicial activists have chosen to interpret it in a way that negates school choice statewide. For instance, the Florida Supreme Court used the "uniform" requirements to strike down that state's innovative Opportunity Scholarship program, even though it was popularly supported by voters.
So, progress in the school choice movement will depend in large part on the ability of reformers to improve state laws and add wording that protects parents' rights to direct their children's schooling.
In addition to teachers' unions, efforts to increase school choice for parents are often vigorously opposed by local school officials who want to protect the status quo and who feel threatened by the prospect of new competition. They often claim that school choice will destroy the public school system and limit good schooling options to only a privileged few.
In addition, public school boards and agencies often make it difficult for charters to expand by implementing regulations and rules like placing a cap on the amount of charters that can exist, requiring difficult and complicated start-up processes, limiting funding and space that's available for new schools, etc.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has been friendly to school choice, opponents of these initiatives are trying to use state court systems to their advantage. For instance, there was a long battle in Arizona over state legislation that provides education scholarships for disabled and foster-care children. Unfortunately, the state's Supreme Court ruled against the legislation. But in April 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out an ACLU-backed lawsuit that had attempted to also dismantle an important Arizona tax-credit, school choice program. Read more about that here.
Despite these legal challenges and obstacles, it is vitally important for parents to continue to protect and fight for their right to direct their children's education. Unfortunately, more and more public schools are promoting homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and other politically liberal views, all the while failing to provide satisfactory academic preparation. In this context, parents need options that allow them more control over their child's education and safeguard their religious freedoms.
For more information, read The Next Civil Rights Battle.