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Wisconsin, Ohio Back Vouchers forReligious Schools

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Debate over school choice will move from the policy arena to the courts following the passage of legislation last month that made Ohio and Wisconsin the first states to approve tuition vouchers for children who attend religious schools.

Ohio lawmakers agreed to introduce vouchers in the 74,000-student Cleveland school district, the state's biggest and most troubled system.

Wisconsin legislators, meanwhile, expanded Milwaukee's five-year-old program of private-school choice--the nation's first--to include religious schools. They also increased the number of students in the 93,000-student district who can participate in the program from the current 1,500 to 15,000 by 1996-97.

The two voucher programs had to include religious schools if they were to test whether school choice can generate the competition needed to spur change in big-city public schools, supporters said. There are relatively few nonsectarian private schools in either city. In Milwaukee, for example, 93 of the 130 private schools are religiously based.

But lawsuits in both states that seek to stop the religious-school vouchers will argue that they are an unconstitutional mix of church and state. Critics said the vouchers were designed as handouts for the Roman Catholic schools that dominate the nonpublic education systems of both Cleveland and Milwaukee.

In Wisconsin, "we have a state flower and a state bird, and now we have a state religion--Catholicism," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokeswoman for the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Cleveland a Test Case

Ohio was first to put the historic legislation into law. Gov. George V. Voinovich, a former mayor of Cleveland, approved the proposal as part of the state budget that he signed on June 30. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson is expected to sign his state's budget, which includes the expanded voucher program, within a few weeks.

Beginning with the 1996-97 school year, Ohio will award vouchers of up to $2,500. Eligibility will be determined by the state schools superintendent, but between 1,000 and 2,500 students from mostly low-income families in Cleveland should get the subsidies, according to Paul B. Palagyi, the Governor's special assistant on education.

Mr. Voinovich originally had proposed a statewide pilot program, but lawmakers skittish about vouchers were more comfortable experimenting with just Cleveland.

"Cleveland is a good place to test choice," said Mary Ann Jackson, a spokeswoman for Hope for Ohio's Children, a group promoting vouchers. "It is a large city, its schools have serious problems, and it has experienced dramatic white flight."

Lawmakers in Wisconsin made few changes to the voucher expansion proposed by Mr. Thompson in January. (See Education Week, 1/25/95.)

The legislation allows up to 7,000 Milwaukee students to use the $3,600 vouchers this fall, with that cap growing to 15,000 in the 1996-97 school year. To qualify, families must have an income of $26,000 or less, about 175 percent of the federal poverty level.

Legal Assault

The American Civil Liberties Union is preparing to file suit to try to stop the new legislation in both states. Teachers' unions and other groups or individual taxpayers opposed to the plans probably will join the legal assault.

In both Ohio and Wisconsin, A.C.L.U. spokesmen said that the plaintiffs will argue that the laws violate the separation of church and state required by both the state and federal constitutions.

In the Ohio suit, Cleveland's federal school-desegregation orders and the court-ordered state takeover of the district also may be cited. Judge Robert B. Krupansky of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, who ordered the takeover, noted in his decree that any state law that contradicts the takeover would be held "inapplicable." (See Education Week, 3/15/95.)

If either suit advances in federal court, school-choice advocates argued, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow public funding for a Christian magazine at the University of Virginia could pave the way for for a ruling that vouchers are constitutional. (See related story.)

That ruling suggests that voucher programs will pass constitutional muster if they are designed to help students and families, not religion, said Mark J. Bredemeier, the general counsel for the Kansas City-based Landmark Legal Foundation, which helped successfully fight a legal challenge to Milwaukee's original school-choice program.

If this Supreme Court were to rule on Wisconsin's legislation, he said, "we would get at least a 5-to-4 decision."

However, Peter N. Koneazny, the legal director of the A.C.L.U. in Wisconsin, said that the state's voucher plan amounts to "thinly disguised" direct funding of religious activity. In the University of Virginia case, the High Court specifically ruled only indirect aid unconstitutional.

"I don't think the decision has any effect on our case," he said. "If anything, it helps it."

Politics of Choice

Similar political alignments drove the voucher proposals in both states.

Ohio and Wisconsin voters last fall turned their legislatures over to Republicans, and both have G.O.P. Governors. In Wisconsin, the benefits of the Republican legislative monopoly were apparent when only one Democrat in the Assembly--Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams, the engineer of Milwaukee's original choice program--voted for the final budget.

In both states, the voucher proposals were promoted by business leaders alarmed at the low academic skills of public school graduates in the two cities.

"Businesses actively told legislators that this kind of change has to occur as a matter of economic survival for the city," said Susan Mitchell, a consultant on school-choice issues for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce.

While some city leaders fought the bills, others welcomed them as a chance to jar what they see as a stagnating school bureaucracy. Fannie M. Lewis, a Democratic city council member in Cleveland, supported the voucher plan as the way to finance a school in her inner-city neighborhood that would operate six days a week with an Afro-centric curriculum.

"The people in this neighborhood have been without hope for many years," she said. "This will give them hope."

In Milwaukee, Howard Fuller, the city schools superintendent who stepped down last month saying he was frustrated by the district's slow pace of change, supported the program's expansion along with Ms. Williams and Democratic Mayor John Norquist.

"I don't see charter schools or choice as the enemies of public schools," Mr. Fuller said. "Unless you ultimately empower parents, the bureaucracy will never truly, truly reform."

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