New Year Shaping Up as Pivotal for Vouchers
From the classroom to the courtroom, school vouchers face their biggest tests yet in the new school year.
In Cleveland and Milwaukee, programs that pay for low-income students to attend private schools are up and running as a host of legal challenges move forward. Smaller voucher programs are being debated in Vermont and Pennsylvania.
Six thousand low-income children are attending 86 private schools in Milwaukee this fall at state expense, many of them in religious schools for the first time after a landmark ruling by the state supreme court last spring.
Meanwhile, opponents of the expanded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program filed papers last week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the use of vouchers at religious schools.
"The state of Wisconsin will divert millions of tax dollars each school year from state aid that otherwise would be provided to the Milwaukee public schools," argues the appeal filed Aug. 31 by a coalition that includes teachers' unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way. That figure--as much as $70 million during the 1998-99 school year alone--would instead be used "to pay for up to 15,000 students to attend private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are pervasively sectarian," the appeal says.
The high court is likely to decide this fall whether to review the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which held that the inclusion of religious schools in the voucher program did not violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.
If the justices take the case, they could rule on the Milwaukee program before their new term ends next June.
In Cleveland, nearly 4,000 low-income children are entering the third year of a state-enacted voucher program that provides private school tuition aid of about $2,500 per child this year.
Voucher applications in Cleveland have actually been on the decline since the program's inception in 1996, a trend that administrators attribute to improvements in the Cleveland public schools.
The program remains under a legal cloud. A state appeals court in Columbus ruled last year that it violates federal and state constitutional prohibitions against government aid to religion. Most of the participating private schools are religiously affiliated.
The Ohio Supreme Court has allowed the program to continue while it reviews the case. Arguments are scheduled for Sept. 28, and a ruling could be several months away.
Several smaller voucher proposals are also making their way through the courts. The Vermont Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the town of Chittenden's efforts to allow high school students to use vouchers to attend religious schools. The town, like many in the state with no high schools of their own, pays tuition for its students at private nonsectarian schools or public schools in other communities.
The town now wants to pay the tuition of students who attend a nearby Roman Catholic high school.
Loss of Students Feared
Meanwhile, voucher advocates and opponents from around the country were in a Pennsylvania courtroom last week to argue over a proposed voucher plan of the Southeast Delaware County district. In June, the 4,100-student district near Philadelphia proposed providing about $1.2 million for tuition assistance to 1,900 students who attend nonpublic schools. Opponents argue that there is no authority under state law to provide such assistance. A ruling is pending.
And it is not just publicly funded vouchers that are drawing attention this year. Many eyes will be on the Edgewood district in San Antonio, where a business foundation has offered $50 million over 10 years to provide vouchers to any low-income student who wants to leave the public schools.
The 14,000-student district anticipated last month that it could lose as many as 1,000 students to the offer from the CEO America Foundation, based in Bentonville, Ark. Backers of the private voucher plan say they chose the Texas district because it is large enough for their offer to make an impact and small enough to aid every interested child.
The Milwaukee voucher program, however, is in a position to make the biggest impact by virtue of the fact that it is the first such proposal to reach the Supreme Court.
Some voucher supporters were excited because the coalition that opposes the Milwaukee program decided to appeal the case to the high court. Voucher advocates believe the justices are poised to approve a voucher program in which parents make the decision on where to direct government aid.
But in their Supreme Court appeal, voucher foes argue that for the court to uphold the Milwaukee program, it would have to overturn its 1973 ruling in Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, which struck down a private school tuition-assistance program enacted by New York state.
The opponents' brief argues that if the Constitution "does not allow the state of New York to provide $100 tuition reimbursements to parents who enroll their children in pervasively sectarian private schools because such payments impermissibly advance religion," it "surely does not allow the state of Wisconsin to pay over $3,000 for children to attend such schools."
Voucher supporters have until the end of September to respond to the appeal. Clint Bolick, whose Washington-based Institute for Justice represents voucher families in the Milwaukee case, said he will support a review by the Supreme Court, even though his side won in the state supreme court.
Mr. Bolick and his organization have been trying for years to get a voucher case before the high court in order to establish what they hope will be a national precedent favorable to vouchers.
The state of Wisconsin is not likely to join Mr. Bolick in welcoming review by the justices.
Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 7