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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

It's time to settle voucher debate

The first step toward a settlement in the school voucher issue is finally under way. The Cleveland voucher program is in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The controversial program begs for a final word because supporters and opponents have dug in their heels. Neither will ever come to terms.

Supporters say the program allows parents to take their children out of inferior public schools and put them in nonpublic schools, where the environment and education are presumed better.

Opponents, however, contend because the program permits parents to apply taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to tuition credit at nonpublic schools that include parochial schools, the line of separation between church and state is blurred.

Ohio's voucher program began seven years ago when students from low-income Cleveland families became the first in the nation to apply state tax money to tuition at private and parochial schools.

The Ohio General Assembly created the program after a federal judge took control of Cleveland's terrible schools from the elected school board and turned it over to the state.

The program is hotly debated largely because so many students use their voucher credits at schools that are operated by church groups. This year's school records show that out of more than 4,400 voucher students in Ohio, 99 percent of them attend religious schools.

That means that out of the $7.6 million the state will spend this year on Cleveland vouchers, $6 million will go mostly to parochial schools that educate voucher students.

Opponents say the state sanctions religion when students use vouchers at religious schools. Supporters say vouchers let parents exercise school choice.

It doesn't appear that many parents choose charter schools from the school-choice menu. Charter schools, nontraditional public schools, operate with fewer state mandates.

But what's often overlooked is that there simply appear to be more religious than nonreligious schools among nonpublic schools. And, tuition at nonsectarian, nonpublic schools tends to be higher than parochial schools' tuition.

That could be one reason low-income parents opt for religious schools: The tuition basically isn't as expensive.

The NAACP is among the numerous groups that oppose voucher programs. It's expected that the civil rights group would be against the effort because it is concerned that if voucher programs prevail, public school schools will lose all around, including funding and students. The NAACP maintains that if the Cleveland voucher program thrives, more whites will use vouchers and lead to an increase of minorities in public schools.

That's a justifiable concern. But it doesn't take into account that many minorities also take advantage of vouchers and benefit from nonpublic school education.

So whatever the high court decides, a lot of people will be unhappy. While I hope that students in the Cleveland program won't be among the losers, the issue needs to be settled by the Supreme Court, which for too long has ignored it.

Previously, the court declined to review voucher cases from Wisconsin, Maine, and Vermont. That caused some to conclude the court favors vouchers.

But don't rely too much on that observation. The court is as likely to rule that vouchers do not violate church-state separation requirements as it is to do the opposite.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is singled out as the justice most likely to cast the deciding vote.

A constitutional lawyer from the University of Virginia says Justice O'Connor seems to try to carve “a middle course in church-state cases.” A.E. Dick Howard added that “She's looking for some sensible middle course that will ease the restrictions somewhat but still sound a note of caution about state aid.”

Perhaps Justice O'Connor will achieve that goal, if that is indeed her objective. Hopefully that is her aim.

But remember.

Justice O'Connor is only one of nine votes.

Whatever will be the court's much-anticipated final word in the divisive debates on school voucher programs, confusion is bound to remain.

After all, it's been almost 40 years since the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory prayer in schools, and even now too few fully understand just what that means.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.



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