Ep. 23: Legal Defense and Education Center with Leslie Hiner

December 8, 2017

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Vice President of Communications (and a lawyer in her own right) Jennifer Wagner sits down with our Vice President of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner to introduce EdChoice’s new Legal Defense and Education Center, or LDEC. Listen to learn why we developed this new center and what type of work we’ll be doing to help protect educational choice programs across America.

Jennifer Wagner: Thank you for joining us for another edition of Ed Choice Chats. I’m joined today by our VP of legal affairs, Leslie Hiner, and I’m your VP of communications here at Ed Choice, Jennifer Wagner. And we are talking today about the introduction, the launch, of the Legal Defense and Education Center, or LDEC, for short. Leslie, tell us what that is going to be.

Leslie Hiner: Thanks, Jen. I’m happy to speak about this, because we found over the last … I’d say, the last few years in particular, the legal attacks against school choice have increased, and not just in number but also in the intensity of those attacks. Through this process, we’ve learned a few things. We’ve learned, first, that those who oppose empowering parents with the right to have their own choice over their children’s education, that they are getting a little more creative in the ways that they’re pursuing litigation against us, so it’s becoming a little more complex.

The other point that has arisen that I think is equally important, it’s not just the litigation getting more intense, but it’s also the fact, I’ve noticed that a general understanding amongst lawyers, judges, attorneys generals, is a little bit light on actually understanding school choice and its connection, in particular, to the first amendment, religious liberty, et cetera.

There’s some work to be done here and it takes a lot of time, and so the Legal Defense and Education Center will give me some opportunity to be able to fully focus my attention on legal affairs in addition to the national outreach that I’m doing.

Jennifer Wagner: The wheels of justice do sometimes turn slowly, but this is not going to be just EdChoice and the LDEC and you. Talk a little bit about how you’re planning to collaborate with other organizations and really put forth a unified front when it comes to defending these school choice laws.

Leslie Hiner: Now you’re talking about the fun part. The fun part of this is the opportunity or greater opportunity now to partner with, in particular, the Institute for Justice. The Institute for Justice has been the leading group that has defended school choice cases for many, many years. From its inception, it’s a core part of what they do. As a result, we’ve worked together over the years very closely and they’ve been just wonderful partners, but now they also are increasing their activity. They’ve observed the same thing that we’ve observed here, and so our collaboration will be much greater, much richer, which I’m really looking forward to. And in addition, there are some other organizations across the country that have been real champions.

The Becket Fund, in particular, I don’t know how we would have handled the two lawsuits that we had in Oklahoma without their help. They were just excellent. Pacific Legal … I probably should stop naming groups because there are several out there. Of course, a bedrock partner in all of this, has always been our involvement with the Federalist Society. The Federalist Society has just been a tremendous resource of really smart lawyers who are really dedicated to defending the constitution and our rights. Again, for us in particular, under the First Amendment, religious liberty, very, very significant. They’ve been tremendously helpful, so I’ll be calling on them also to do more as we move forward.

Jennifer Wagner: That sounds great, and Leslie, I don’t want to put you on the spot but I’m going to, anyway. What is the toughest case you’ve ever been a part of in the educational choice movement and how did it turn out?

Leslie Hiner: I would say the toughest case really had to be the Nevada, not one case, but two cases. In Nevada, there was the normal type of First Amendment religious liberty challenge based on Blaine amendments that we typically see in every school choice case, but additionally, there was a very strong offense by opponents regarding the funding of the program. They came up with some rather unique arguments for that. They were strong challengers, but it wasn’t just that. I like a good challenge like that. That’s great. There’s nothing better than arguing the fine points of the law to try to find really where the truth rests.

There’s something very good about that. However, their tactics were a little over the top, to the point of, even after we won both of those cases, their attorneys actually went forward to say that it was ruled unconstitutional when it was not ruled unconstitutional, and then that required additional work for us. I partnered with the Institute for Justice again to step up and call them on it. As a result, then, the court made the proper adjustments and then we had to communicate the same thing to the state legislature.

Again, part of this is keeping people honest. It’s not something that I would normally expect to encounter in litigation, but we encountered that. It was a little depressing to see lawyers engage in that kind of behavior, but that’s just the way it is and we’re not going to back down from any challenge to school choice.

Jennifer Wagner: I think that’s where, you talked about earlier, the education component of the Legal Defense and Education Center comes in. For those of you listening, this will officially launch on January 1 of 2018, so this partnership will start and this center will start up. Leslie, is there anything else you’d like to add about what you’re looking forward to or what you hope to accomplish in the coming year or years ahead?

Leslie Hiner: Yes. I’d say that the other thing that this will allow is, it will allow for me, personally, to do more writing. You might look for that. People who are listening can look for more coming from EdChoice on legal matters. I think it’s also really important that for people who are not lawyers, but who are deeply involved in the policy of school choice or parents who are trying to understand all of this and what I means, I think it’s really important that they also understand the legal side of things, and what’s happening, but also why things are happening, why people are making certain arguments one way or the other.

I hope that over the next few years that I can build a bridge between litigators on one hand and policy people and parents on the other hand, because in my view, the greater understanding of the entirety of this issue, what it is and how we defend it and how it works for parents and for our children, the more we understand the whole picture, the better off we’ll be, the better we will be able to enact programs for children that work to the best outcome for kids. That’s always the goal.

Jennifer Wagner: Yeah, and that’s what we should never lose sight of, is that you’re having to fight this fight along with other attorneys and other organizations because there are challengers out there that don’t believe that every child should have access to the right schooling option that works for them or that the funding that is allocated to that child from the government should follow that child. We’re looking forward to the launch of the Legal Defense and Education Center.

You don’t have to say it, but I will. Anyone who’s interested in supporting this mission can go on our website at edchoice.org and make a contribution to support the Legal Defense and Education Center or our work overall. Leslie, thank you so much for joining us today. We are so excited about what the future holds.

Leslie Hiner: Thank you, Jen, I’m very excited about this, too.