Questioning State Aid for Students at Private Colleges

Policies need to maximize students' opportunities, not limit their choices

Last school year, more than 200,000 of California’s college students received Cal Grants from the state government (via taxpayers) to help cover the costs at the public or private university of their choice, including religious colleges, like the University of San Diego. But that may change.

Next week the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether that state’s Opportunity Scholarships Program, which provides the parents of more than 700 students in failing public schools the right to move to better-performing schools, including religious schools, violates the state constitution because it provides “aid” to religious schools in violation of the Florida Constitution’s Blaine Amendment.

The most obvious flaw in the claim is that the program doesn’t provide “aid” to religious schools, but to parents and their kids in failing schools. Nevertheless, lawyers on both sides agree the decision will have implications for states like California, where financial aid winds up at religious institutions.

Today, 38 states, including California, have placed some restrictions on government aid going to sectarian schools. California and Florida courts have thus far been similar and consistent in their rulings on this topic. In the 1978 case, Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Jr. University v. Cory, the California 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled that payment of funds in the amount of tuition for education directly to a student or to a public or private school on behalf of a student who designates the school of his choice is not unconstitutional, since any benefit to private school is an “incidental” or “indirect” effect of the direct benefit to the student.

Opponents of school choice, however, claim that the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Locke v. Davey, which allows states to withhold scholarships from students studying theology, now gives states permission to exclude religious options from generally available public programs.

But the Supreme Court actually noted, approvingly, that the college scholarship program at issue in the Locke case permits a wide variety of religious schools and options within the program. The court created only a narrow exception to its neutrality doctrine: public funding for the religious training of clergy is not allowed.

If Florida courts strike down the Opportunity Scholarships, the Institute for Justice estimates that the scholarships and grants of nearly 200,000 Florida students in 11 programs would be jeopardized because those programs allow students to choose freely among religious and non-religious schools. And California students would likely be thrust into a similar fight.

“I would not be able to go to the school of my choice or complete my dream without my scholarship,” Leah Cousart, who won a publicly funded Bright Futures Scholarship and uses it to attend Southeastern College, a Christian university. “If you take away the right of people to use the scholarship at any accredited college, including a religious school, then it is a crime against those who have worked for the scholarship.”

Some claim this is just the latest battle over the separation of church and state, which has heated up palpably during George W. Bush’s presidency. Everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to statues in front of courthouses to Terri Schiavo has been on the front pages. But this isn’t about the separation of church and state. This is about reforming education.

Florida created a law that gives kids in failing schools the freedom to move to better schools. If the public schools weren’t failing in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a need for this Opportunity Scholarship program.

We’ve seen that the loss of students, and the loss of funding that accompanies their departures, is one of the most effective ways to light a fire under our failing public schools. The fight against school choice in Florida is being led by teachers unions and other groups that fear competition for the public schools. California’s powerful education unions have displayed a similar willingness to fight school choice programs, regardless of success stories and benefits to students.

Our current policies neither favor nor discriminate against religious schools. Whether it is a Florida sixth-grader in a failing school who is given a voucher to attend a better school, or a California college student, eligible for a Cal Grant, who chooses to attend the University of San Diego, our educational forces should be working to maximize the opportunities and advance the dreams of our students, not limit their choices.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.