School voucher case offers test of church-state separation
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON For Roberta Kitchen, the national debate over school vouchers is more about the education of her 11-year-old daughter than entrenched arguments over separation of church and state.
The girl attends a Lutheran elementary school almost entirely on the public dime. Her tuition is paid by a pilot program available to parents whose children attend Cleveland schools.
Hers is the test case in the legal battle over voucher plans that give parents alternatives to public education.
Civil liberties groups and many educators want the Supreme Court to declare the Cleveland program unconstitutional.
"I am hoping this great debate will finally end with a yes vote by the Supreme Court, but my major concern is still my daughter, that she continue to do well," Kitchen said in an interview.
The court will hear arguments Feb. 20 in three cases arising from the 6-year-old Cleveland experiment.
The Bush administration is urging the court to uphold the program. It squares neatly with President Bush's support for voucher plans and for greater inclusion of religious organizations in public causes such as drug treatment.
With their blend of religion and politics, vouchers have emerged as the most talked-about issue before the court this term. The issues has attracted 38 friend-of-the-court briefs, more than any other case this year.
Conservative and religious advocacy groups such as Focus on the Family and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are among sponsors of some 30 filings that support the Cleveland plan. The Anti-Defamation League and the National School Boards Association are among those on the other side.
The case presents a straightforward constitutional question: Is it a violation of the principle of separation of church and state for public tax money to pay for religious education?
A court ruling endorsing the program probably would encourage other states and cities to try similar things and could strengthen Bush's hand as he tries to win congressional support for a national voucher plan.
A ruling that strikes down the Cleveland program as unconstitutional could also stop the flow of public dollars for religious tuition in Milwaukee and Florida, and could all but end the drive for a national, public-funded voucher program.
Supporters of vouchers usually call the idea school choice. In the Cleveland case, parents theoretically have the choice to pull their children from one of the worst-rated public school systems in the country and enroll them in another public school, a secular private academy or a parochial school.
The administration says that range of options makes the program constitutional.
The administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Theodore Olson, argues that religious schools are on the same footing as other schools. He says parents, not the government, choose how to spend the public money.
"Parental choice, not government indoctrination, is ... the hallmark of the Ohio program," Olson wrote.
Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way and a voucher opponent, said the Cleveland program places a facade of parental choice over a giveaway of public money to religious schools.
"There's virtually no choice," he said.
Suburban public schools have not signed up to take the inner city students, and there are only five eligible private academies in the city from which parents may choose.
In the current school year, the program is underwriting tuition for 4,456 students, almost all of whom are attending some kind of religious school. About three-quarters of the students go to Catholic schools.
The program pays up to $2,250 per year to qualified students, most of whose families are poor. About half the students are black.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the program, saying it "clearly has the impermissible effect of promoting sectarian schools." Ohio appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by summer.
The program continued while the case was appealed.
Backers say vouchers give poor parents a way out of failing public schools and offer incentive to improve those schools.
Teachers' unions and other education organizations say vouchers rob the neediest schools of money that might make them better, while skimming off the brightest or most motivated students.
The cases are Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Hannah Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris and Taylor v. Simmons-Harris.
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