The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the practice of allowing disadvantaged students to use public funds to attend private, religious schools. Ruling 5-4, the court reversed a Ohio appeals court decision striking down a controversial program in Cleveland for violating the separation of church and state.
Appearing in Cleveland days after the decision, President Bush came out in broad support of vouchers at the local level:
“The people of Cleveland and the state of Ohio decided . . . they wanted to encourage a voucher system to be implemented. That was a local decision. And the Supreme Court of the United States gave a great victory to parents and students throughout the nation by upholding the decisions made by local folks here in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.”
Despite the fact that 82 percent of the schools that participate in the Cleveland system have religious affiliations and 96 percent of the students choose religious schools, the court held that parents have a range of educational choices. Delivering the opinion for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the Ohio program did not constitute the establishment of religion: “The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious.”
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens found the majority decision “profoundly misguided” and offered this warning: “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”
Opponents of vouchers, which allow parents to remove children from public schools and pay for private school tuition with taxpayer money, have long said that vouchers deplete much-needed resources from the nation’s public schools and cause irrevocable harm for the benefit of the few. Proponents stress that vouchers provide competition for failing public schools and give poor students the same educational choice that their middle-class and wealthy peers enjoy.
While the Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris is expected to generate new efforts to expand voucher programs across the country, most education experts believe it is unlikely to lead to a mass exodus of students and money from public schools. Polls show that many Americans remain skeptical, if not hostile, toward vouchers. Today, three voucher programs exist: Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the state of Florida. At least 26 states have refused to enact legislation that would establish voucher programs. However, only hours after the court decision, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-TX) introduced a bill to create a program similar to the Cleveland voucher system for Washington, D.C.’s low-income children who attend failing schools. A similar bill was vetoed by former-President Bill Clinton in 1997.
|Reactions to the Court Decision
“It’s flat wrong to take scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools and divert them to private schools. Despite the Court’s ruling, vouchers are still bad policy for public schools, and Congress must not abandon its opposition to them.” – Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA).
Attorney General John Ashcroft called the decision “historic” and “a great victory for parents and children across America, particularly for many minority, low-income students who have been trapped in failing public schools.”
“This decision represents an opportunity for us to become the most passionate and most articulate advocates ever for public education. Before today’s ruling, vouchers were an unpopular and unproven idea. They still are and they offer nothing to the 90 percent of children who attend public schools.” – Mossi White, National School Boards Association President