Published Online: February 19, 1997


Battle Waged Over Vouchers in Cleveland

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To Brenda Slegus, educational vouchers aren't a complex constitutional question or a faded presidential campaign issue. They represent--literally--the winning lottery ticket to a better future for two of her daughters.

Ms. Slegus and her daughters are among the more than 1,900 Cleveland families who are receiving state aid this year in the form of vouchers to pay tuition at 51 private schools here. For the first time, a government-financed choice program includes religious schools on a large scale.

"My children are just starting school," Ms. Slegus, 28, said last week. "Maybe by the time they graduate, the Cleveland public schools will have their act together. But I can't afford to wait."

Ms. Slegus last fall began sending her daughters, kindergartner Alexis and 3rd grader Arianne, to St. Adalbert's Catholic School on this city's run-down east side.

The state is picking up 90 percent of St. Adalbert's $975 annual tuition for each of the two girls. Ms. Slegus and most of the other low-income families in the program are expected to pay the remaining 10 percent.

The vouchers are worth as much as $2,500 for parents who choose from a range of private schools, which are participating voluntarily. While the vast majority of the schools are Roman Catholic, a handful of Islamic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and nonsectarian schools also take part in the program, which currently covers grades K-3.

Voucher opponents, including teachers in this city's troubled public school system, are waging a high-stakes legal battle against the state program. They fear that the Cleveland experiment could open the door for more vouchers in Ohio and across the nation. Vouchers are bad public policy, the opponents say, and any program that includes religious schools violates federal and state constitutional prohibitions against government aid to religion.

"The way to fix the public schools is to fix the public schools, not give money to parochial schools," Marvin E. Frankel, a lawyer for the opponents, told a state appeals court in Columbus late last week. The court was hearing arguments about the legal merits of the Cleveland program.

The appeals court last summer refused to block the program from getting under way after a state trial judge upheld the constitutionality of vouchers, even for parents choosing religious schools. ("Court Clears Cleveland's Voucher Pilot, Aug. 7, 1996, and "For First Time, Students Use Vouchers for Religious Schools," Sept. 4, 1996.)

A Compromise

The Ohio legislature in 1995 targeted Cleveland for the pilot voucher program, largely because of the bleak conditions in the city's public schools. A federal judge ordered the state to take control of the Cleveland district nearly two years ago, and state lawmakers are now debating whether to give Mayor Michael R. White complete authority over the system. ("Plan Gives Mayor Control Over Cleveland Schools," Oct. 9, 1996.)

The Cleveland pilot program was a compromise that grew out of a proposal to provide vouchers in eight urban districts.

The state education department hired Bert Holt, who was about to retire as an administrator with the Cleveland public schools, to put together the program.

More than 6,200 families applied; through a lottery, about 2,900 were approved for vouchers. The program was also open to students who were already attending private schools last year, however no more than 25 percent of the vouchers could go to them.

Now the program is accepting applications for the second year, which are due March 31. Gov. George V. Voinovich, a Republican who supports the program, recently proposed a state budget that would allow it to expand by one grade. Such an expansion essentially would allow this year's 3rd graders to have vouchers next year while making money available for kindergarten students.

"Parents are being empowered through this," Ms. Holt said. "They are taking responsibility for their children's lives."

At St. Adalbert's, Principal Lydia Harris was an early proponent of the voucher plan.

"I have a desperation to save more children in this neighborhood," said the longtime Catholic school administrator.

St. Adalbert's sits in what started as a parish for Eastern European immigrants but long ago began serving an African-American congregation. The school, with a K-8 enrollment of 400, has accepted 43 students under the voucher program, the majority of whom are in kindergarten.

Beverland Paul, whose nephew Brandell Rudolph is attending St. Adalbert's on a voucher, said she likes the discipline and mandatory uniforms she sees at the school.

"In the Cleveland public schools, half of the teachers are afraid of the kids," said Ms. Paul, who is the 1st grader's legal guardian.

Catholic educators in Cleveland say they are not seeking to enrich their coffers with public funds and point out that the amounts for tuition do not even cover their actual expenses. "The money benefits the parent," said Sister Anne Maline, the principal of Metro Catholic Parish School on Cleveland's west side. "We subsidize every kid who comes here."

The school, which serves nine Catholic parishes, has 81 voucher recipients among its 700 students.

'An Escape Valve'

Among the many arguments that voucher opponents raise is that such programs benefit a relative few without focusing attention on the whole system.

Michael Charney, who teaches 8th grade at the public Lincoln Middle School here, called vouchers "society's attempt to run away from the problem of providing quality education for all children."

"It allows people to say, 'We're going to have an escape valve for a tiny minority of kids,' but it does not confront the reality of the whole system," added Mr. Charney, who is also an officer of the Cleveland Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Ron Marec, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said the $5.25 million in state funds for the voucher program this year is money being denied to the public school system. The money comes from a section of the state budget for disadvantaged students in the 75,000-pupil Cleveland system.

But state officials argue that the Cleveland district is still allowed to count voucher students in its enrollment and that a funding formula for disadvantaged students was adjusted upward so the district wouldn't lose money this year.

Two less frequently discussed components of the state program attracted significant attention last week in the court of appeals hearing. The state law establishing the voucher program also requires an equal amount of money to go for tutorial assistance for public school students. But few public school students have applied for the grants, which are worth as much as $500.

The law also allows voucher recipients to use the aid to attend any of the 15 school districts that border Cleveland as long as those districts agree to participate in the program. So far, none are willing.

The neighboring administrators have said that the vouchers do not cover the costs of educating students in their districts.

Battle in the Courtroom

The Feb. 13 legal arguments before the appeals court in Columbus, the state capital, drew lawyers who have participated in voucher battles across the nation, including Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice in Washington, which supports vouchers, and Robert H. Chanin, the general counsel of the National Education Association, which is opposed to them.

Voucher opponents called on the judges to strike down the program primarily based upon provisions of the Ohio Constitution that bar government aid to religion. Any such decision might limit the chance that the case could reach the U.S. Supreme Court on a federal establishment-of-religion question.

The state judges appeared very interested in the federal question, however. And while they grilled both sides, there was at least some sentiment expressed in favor of upholding the program.

"It seems to me the Cleveland public school system is in absolute chaos and is about to go under," Judge John C. Young told a lawyer for the voucher opponents.

Voucher supporters argued that the program does not directly aid religion because the vouchers are given to parents, who then make independent choices about whether to enroll their children in a religious school.

Jeffrey S. Sutton, a lawyer for the state, argued that this mechanism "breaks the circuit" between the government and the religious institution.

But Judge Peggy Bryant said that without the participation of the suburban public schools, the parents' choice "is limited to private and mostly religious schools."

"We have to decide whether [the voucher program] has the effect of promoting religion," she said.

A decision in the case is not expected for several months. Observers say they doubt that the court would disrupt the program before the school year ends even if the judges intend to strike it down.

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