Supreme Court to tackle school vouchers
By The Associated Press
CLEVELAND A school voucher program that serves a fraction of this city's 77,000 students has become the Supreme Court's test case for deciding whether taxpayer dollars may be used for religious school tuition.
The Supreme Court, tackling a church-state issue dear to President Bush, agreed yesterday to decide whether the Constitution permits the use of public money to send children to religious schools. It will hear challenges to the Cleveland program, implemented six years ago as a way to let low-income families decide where their children go to school.
But it has been the subject of litigation ever since. It was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court but twice found unconstitutional by federal courts.
Supporters hope the conservative-led high court will use the case to broaden its recent trend of approving limited uses of taxpayer money at religious schools. Opponents, too, say the court's ruling could be a landmark.
"This is probably the most important church-state case in the last half-century," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
The case poses a direct query about the Constitution's position on government money and religion. Recent church-state cases, while important, have explored more peripheral matters, such as whether a prayer group may meet in a public school building.
The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case will "remove the constitutional cloud from school choice," said Clint Bolick, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that represents Cleveland families in the program.
Supporters say the program is constitutional because the state isn't promoting a particular religion. Critics claim vouchers create an unconstitutional link between church and state and take funding away from public schools.
"Voucher programs force taxpayers to put money in the collection plate of churches," Lynn said. "The court should never permit this to happen. The justices should uphold church-state separation and slam the door on this reckless scheme."
Vouchers offer government subsidies to pay at least a portion of private or parochial school tuition. In Ohio, parents can get $800 to $2,250 a year in tuition help. All but a handful of the schools participating in the Ohio program are religious.
In Cleveland, 3,859 students at about 50 schools are enrolled in the program. Participation has grown from 1,994 in the 1996-97 school year.
Priority is given to families in poverty, but families with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level can qualify.
Many critics of the program argue that vouchers do little to provide school choice.
"What's happening in Cleveland is that the parents of these youngsters are being given up to $2,250 to attend the same private schools they probably would have attended even without the vouchers," said Joanne DeMarco, a public school teacher and vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.
"We think vouchers are not good public policy because all it does is take millions of dollars away from the schools we teach in," she added.
The Supreme Court will hear challenges to the voucher program early next year. A ruling is expected by summer.
School vouchers had been a centerpiece of Bush's education campaign platform, but he had difficulty gathering congressional support for a voucher plan. Vouchers were left out of a sweeping education reform package that Congress recently passed.
The Supreme Court last ruled on vouchers directly in 1973 in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, when it struck down a voucher program because public money went to "subsidize and advance the religious mission of sectarian schools."
The court has become more conservative since then and has allowed pro-voucher decisions from lower courts to stand. It also has allowed government aid to religious schools for remedial tutoring and the purchase of computers.
Still, critics say a ruling in favor of the Cleveland program would represent a dramatic shift in the court's interpretation of the Constitution.
"The Supreme Court has never approved such a massive program of public aid for religious instruction in its history," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And it could not do so now without dramatically reforming our modern understanding of the constitutional prohibition against government entanglement with religion."
The cases are Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Hanna Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris and Taylor v. Simmons-Harris.
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