State Voucher Programs

October 03, 2001 2 min read
Ohio | Wisconsin | Florida | Vermont | Maine


Under the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Pilot Project Scholarship Program enacted Program enacted by the Ohio legislature in 1995, about 4,000 Cleveland students use tuition vouchers worth $2,250 each to attend private schools. As of last year, about 96 percent of the students were using the vouchers to attend religiously affiliated schools, a fact that was crucial to a ruling by a federal appeals court striking down the program as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court will use the legal challenge to this program to decide the constitutionality of using publicly funded vouchers at religious schools.


The state adopted its pioneering private-school-voucher program for Milwaukee students from low-income families in 1990. But it wasn’t until 1995 that the program was amended to include religious schools, prompting a new round of legal challenges. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2 in 1998 that the program did not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The program now includes about 10,000 students, 70 percent of whom are enrolled in religious schools, and provides them with vouchers worth as much as $5,550 each.


The Opportunity Scholarship Program was enacted in 1999 as the first statewide voucher program. It allows children in schools deemed failing by the state for two years out of four to receive vouchers to attend other public schools or private schools, including religious ones. So far, only two schools in Pensacola have been labeled failing twice within four years, leading 58 students to use vouchers for private schools and 78 students to transfer to other public schools. The program is under challenge in the state courts on establishment-of-religion and other grounds.

A separate Florida program, also enacted in 1999, provides vouchers that allow students with disabilities to attend private schools or out-of-district public schools. The state expects as many as 4,000 students to use the program this school year.


Some consider the state’s 132-year-old practice of “tuitioning” to be the first voucher program in the nation. In some 90 towns without their own public high schools, districts pay tuition to send some 6,500 children to private, secular high schools or nearby public high schools. Tuition was paid for religious schools until 1961, when the state courts ruled the practice unconstitutional. A few years ago, one town sought to reinstate religious schools as a choice under the program, but the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999that such participation would violate the establishment clause.


The state has had a tuitioning system similar to Vermont’s since 1873. Some 5,600 students from 55 towns without high schools attend private schools at state expense. Some parents have sought to expand the program to include religious schools. Both the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, ruled in 1999 against such participation.

—Mark Walsh