School-Voucher Showdown in the Supreme Court

Ohio Case Could Prompt a Landmark Decision

CLEVELAND, Ohio, FEB. 23, 2002 ( On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over whether government vouchers should be given to enable parents to send their children to private or religious schools. The long-standing debate over vouchers touches sensitive points over church-state relations and the role of private education.

The case concerns a 6-year-old test program in Cleveland, Ohio. A decision by the high-court justices is expected by this summer, the Associated Press reported the same day.

Supporters of vouchers argue that they will offer students an alternative to poorly run public schools and spur educational reforms. Opponents are worried about public funds going to religious institutions. “If the Supreme Court upholds this plan, Americans will be forced to support religious indoctrination,” said the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

In the Cleveland program, parents may use their voucher to send children to 51 participating schools, nine of which are non-religious. Ohio officials, supported by the Bush administration, maintain that the program does not violate the Constitution. Currently, 4,456 students receive financial aid of up to $2,250 a year.

The small number of non-religious schools available under the scheme is due to the fact that suburban schools wouldn´t participate, and the vouchers don´t cover tuition at higher-priced non-religious private schools. As a result, almost all of the children enrolled in religious schools.

Opponents of the plan brought legal action in the federal court, claiming the voucher program violates the separation of church and state by using government money to support private religious schools that engage in religious instruction. A federal appeals court struck down the Cleveland program as unconstitutional in December 2000. The program was allowed to continue while the case was appealed.

The consequences of the Supreme Court decision will be felt beyond Ohio. “This is huge,” says Douglas Laycock, a law professor and church-state scholar at the University of Texas, reported the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. “All the opinions so far are carefully hedged and qualified,” he says of the court´s church-state decisions since 1983. “Vouchers are the really big program they haven´t dealt with.”

More than 30 organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides of the issue. Those in support of vouchers include the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Among those opposing vouchers are the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Jewish Committee and the Ohio School Boards Association.

A ruling against the Cleveland plan would be a setback to voucher efforts in other cities. But voucher defenders probably would restructure the programs, setting off another round of legislative and legal battles, observed the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

In fact, a number of states are already exploring options to vouchers. In Florida, a program uses taxpayer money to send children to private schools, but less directly. The plan allows corporations to give money to state-approved scholarship programs for low-income children, and reduce their state tax bills, dollar-for-dollar, by the amount of the contributions. Since the plan began last month, two corporations each have given the maximum $5 million to Florida scholarship programs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Another six states have programs that offer parents or corporations tax incentives to fund private-school scholarships or public-school improvements. At the federal level, Congress last year voted to let parents set up tax-deferred education savings accounts to pay for private-school tuition. And in his budget presented two weeks ago, President George W. Bush proposed giving parents of students in failing public schools a $2,500 tax deduction or refund to help pay for private schooling.

Opinions clash

Wednesday´s opening of arguments saw an abundance of opinion articles on vouchers that same day. In the Washington Times, Peter Ferrara, executive director of the American Civil Rights Union, supported vouchers saying: “The state of Ohio implemented a classic and well-designed voucher program for Cleveland because of the extremely poor performance of its schools.”

Ferrara argued that the program does not contravene a constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion. “It expands the education choices of parents to the broadest possible degree, including the entire spectrum of non-religious public and private schools, as well as private religious schools,” he maintained.

Also in the Washington Times, Gregory S. Walden and Matthew F. Stowe, counsels to the Center for Education Reform, supported the Ohio program. They argued that after two decades of failed education reforms, “it is high time to try the option of school choice.”

They contended that, without vouchers, inner-city minority families have no opportunity to escape a failing public school. “Today, many inner-city schools are still segregated by race whereas private and religious schools participating in school choice programs often are racially diverse,” Walden and Stowe wrote.

In the Wall Street Journal, John O. Norquist, Democratic and mayor of Milwaukee, home to another voucher program, noted that among the schools that participate in his city´s program, “the level of racial and religious integration often surpasses local public schools.”

Norquist explained that vouchers in Milwaukee have sparked off reforms in public schools, leading to major improvements for students. He also quoted a study by Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby, who investigated the impact of vouchers on public schools in Milwaukee. Her conclusion: “Overall, an evaluation of Milwaukee suggests that public schools have a strong, positive response to competition from vouchers.”

But for Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way Foundation, endorsement by the Supreme Court of vouchers in Cleveland “could encourage other states down a dangerous path that drains critical funds from public schools and the students they serve.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Neas maintained that “funneling tax dollars to vouchers undercuts the ability to fund smaller classes, early intervention, after-school programs and other reforms that can turn around troubled schools.”

Opposition to vouchers also came from editorials in the New York Times, and its stablemate, the Boston Globe. The Times maintained that victory for vouchers “would mark a serious retreat from this nation´s historic commitment to maintaining a wall between government and religion.” The editorial also opined that “vouchers do not encourage better public schools,” and “are a distraction” from reform of the educational system. The Globe also objected to government money going to religious schools and maintained, “Voucher programs do not enhance educational equality.”

Editorials in both the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal supported vouchers and compared the case to the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 that mandated an end to racially segregated schools. On Tuesday the Journal argued that it isn´t a case of the state giving its support to religion, but rather, parents who are choosing these schools.

The next day a Washington Times editorial noted that most of the beneficiaries of the Cleveland program are minorities, who can now escape the city´s failing schools by going to the institution of their choice. Denying them vouchers would strand these minority students in substandard schools, “ensuring that a good education will be limited to the few: rich, white suburban children or city residents who can afford to go to private schools.”

With the future of inner-city children — and much of U.S. education — at stake, the Supreme Court´s decision this summer could have colossal impact.

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