Chicago Parents' Suit Seeks Vouchers for Private Schools

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A group of 27 Chicago parents has filed a suit seeking to force the state of Illinois to provide vouchers for their children to attend private or parochial schools.

The action, filed last month in the State Circuit Court of Cook County, took the form of a petition to intervene in a separate suit filed last month by 47 school districts seeking a more equitable state system for financing schools.

The plaintiffs in both suits agree that the state is failing to provide the "efficient system of high-quality public education" required in the Illinois constitution.

But the intervention petition asserts that the mere equalization of funding between poorer and wealthier districts sought by the first suit will not improve education or bring about educational equity "in any meaningful sense."

It argues that a system of publicly funded private-school vouchers is needed to give children access to a high-quality education until other improvements in public education are made.

William Gleeson, a lawyer with the firm Hinshaw & Culbertson who is representing the districts in the equity suit, said his clients have not welcomed the involvement of the voucher advocates in their case. He said he would ask State Circuit Judge Thomas O'Brien to deny the request for intervention on the grounds that the voucher advocates have not raised a constitutional issue.

But Clint Bolick, director of the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights, a Washington-based organization representing the 27 voucher-seeking parents, said he would refile a separate lawsuit and seek to have the two cases consolidated if the judge denied the par4ents' intervention bid.

"It simply would not make sense to resolve these issues separately,'' Mr. Bolick said, adding that separate resolutions "could lead to bizarre results--remedies that don't take into account each other."

The petition for intervention asks the court to order the state to implement parental choice, school accountability, and local control in schools statewide so that parents will have the tools to ensure that their children are being provided with a high-quality public education.

Until such mechanisms are implemented, the petition argues, the state should be ordered to give vouchers to parents to enable them to enroll their children in private or parochial schools where such an education will be provided.

In the absence of a voucher system, it maintains, poor students will be forced to remain in public schools that are not fulfilling the state's constitutional obligation and will suffer "irreparable harm" as a result.

"Any remedy that leaves kids hostage in deficient public schools is no remedy at all," charged Mr. Bolick, whose organization has defended a Milwaukee voucher program that is currently under challenge in the Wisconsin courts.

Patrick J. Keleher Jr., president of Taxpayers for Educational Accountability and Choice, a nonprofit community group in Chicago listed as a plaintiff in the intervention petition, said the plaintiffs in the original equity suit erred in that they defined equity "mostly in terms of money, not in terms of academic achievement."

Mr. Keleher, whose organization goes by the name teach America, contended that the districts in the original suit were preparing the way for "massive," court-ordered new taxes to increase funding to poorer districts while ignoring mounting evidence that the link between education spending and academic results is weak, with some poorly funded districts having higher achievement scores than wealthy ones.

According to Mr. Keleher, the Chicago school district, a plaintiff in the equity suit, has achieved poor results while spending $5,300 per student, more than most other districts in the state and more than the average per-pupil cost for the city's 448 private and parochial schools.

Marj Halperin, a spokesman for the Chicago public schools, said Mr. Keleher's figures were misleading because they include federal funding for programs for disadvantaged students and fail to account for the fact that inner-city students often cost more than to educate because of their special needs. Private schools, she added, can be selective in choosing their student population.

Asserting that the amount of state and local money spent per Chicago student is less than the state average, Ms. Halprin said, "This question of vouchers is something to consider once the public-school system has been adequately funded and stabilized."

Mr. Gleeson, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the finance-equity suit, contended that parental control, accountability, and local control, while desirable, are not prerequisites for fulfilling the state constitution's requirements on education. Such steps, he argued, would not ensure a high-quality education in a district where adequate funding is not available.

Vouchers, he contended, are "constitutionally highly questionable" and "would simply empty the city schools of all the white kids."

The court had taken no action on the intervention petition as of last week, pending a response by the state to the original suit.

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