Cornell Law Review Volume 103 Issue 6

Preferencing Educational Choice: The Constitutional Limits

Rapidly expanding charter and voucher programs are establishing a new education paradigm in which access to traditional public schools is no longer guaranteed. In some areas, charter and voucher programs are on a trajectory to phase out traditional public schools altogether. This Article argues that this trend and its effects violate the constitutional right to public education embedded in all fifty state constitutions. Importantly, this Article departs from past constitutional arguments against charter and voucher programs. Past arguments have attempted to prohibit such programs entirely and have assumed, with little evidentiary support, that they endanger statewide education systems. Unsurprisingly, litigation and scholarship based on a flawed premise have thus far failed to slow the growth of charter and voucher programs. Without a reframed theory, several recently filed lawsuits are likely to suffer the same fate.

This Article does not challenge the general constitutionality of choice programs. Instead, the Article identifies two limitations that state constitutional rights to education place on choice policy. The first limitation is that states cannot preference private choice programs over public education. This conclusion flows from the fact that most state constitutions mandate public education as a first-order right for their citizens. Thus, while states may establish choice programs, they cannot systematically advantage choice programs over public education. This Article demonstrates that some states have crossed this line.

The second limitation that state constitutions place on choice programs is that their practical effect cannot impede educational opportunities in public schools. Education clauses in state constitutions obligate the state to provide adequate and equitable public schools. Any state policy that deprives students of access to those opportunities is therefore unconstitutional. Often-overlooked district level data reveals that choice programs are reducing public education funding, stratifying opportunity, and intensifying segregation in large urban centers. Each of these effects represents a distinct constitutional violation.

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