Ohio School Voucher Program Challenged In Court
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Thirty-eight hundred voucher students in Cleveland, Ohio could lose their scholarships less than two weeks before the start of the new school year. The teachers unions and two liberal public policy organizations have asked a federal court for a preliminary injunction against the program, charging that it violates the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
"I've never been so shocked and outraged," Institute for Justice Litigation Director Clint Bolick told stateline.org, "If the injunction is granted, the kids lose their scholarships and have to return to public schools that are not prepared to absorb them."
Bolick defended the program in court Friday.
But Pat Martin, media relations manager for the Cleveland Municipal School District, says that the city's public schools will be glad to take on the students.
"It will be no problem whatsoever, " she said.
The injunction has been sought by a coalition of groups, including the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, People for the American Way Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
They want the voucher program declared unconstitutional because public dollars are used to pay student tuition even when they go to religious schools. Foes of the program say this flies in the face of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
Federal District Court Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. did not act on Friday, but if he grants the injunction, the program will cease before school starts.
The point of an injunction is to maintain a "status quo" atmosphere so that legal arguments can be made on their merits and without outside influence.
Defenders of the program argue that voucher payments go to parents who then choose where to send their child to school.
"The plaintiffs want to undo what the legislature and state Supreme Court have decided," Bolick said.
The Ohio Supreme Court has upheld the voucher program, but briefly halted its implementation on a technicality. It said the state legislature would have to approve the program by passing a law that dealt with the program alone rather than as part of an omnibus budget bill --a "single subject rule."
Still brooding from an ongoing battle with the courts over school finance, the lawmakers only half complied. They pulled the program out of the budget bill, but they passed it within the education bill.
Nationwide, there are only three voucher programs: in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida, which has the only statewide program. Gov. Jeb Bush made the program the centerpiece of his election campaign, and signed it into law earlier this year. The infant project is being challenged in court, but opponents have not asked for an injunction, so the program will go forward even as it is being litigated.
Foes of the voucher program in Milwaukee carried their legal battle against it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices chose not to hear the case.
This was seen by many as an implicit endorsement of vouchers by the nation's highest court, but legal analysts say that the court often lets lower courts hash out an issue before taking a case and making a judgement.
Teachers unions, many educators and civil liberties groups are against voucher programs because they fear that it will siphon funds from the public schools, skim off the best students and leave behind the worst-performing and most impoverished children.
But in the three years since the Cleveland experiment began, researchers have found that:
- A voucher student costs roughly $1800 to school, but Cleveland's per pupil cost exceeds $5,000 a student.
- No teachers have been laid off, possibly because enrollment in the Cleveland school district has increased at the same time that the program was instituted. In fact, some researchers have argued that the new demand that increased enrollment has placed on the public schools has been alleviated somewhat by the 1,000 per year voucher students.
- Statistics collected by Indiana University, one of the evaluators, do not substantiate the argument that the best and brightest are leaving because of vouchers.
- The Cleveland program was designed to help poor families. In the first two years the legislature decided the scholarships should be awarded to students whose family income did not exceed $6,500.