School Vouchers Slow to Spread

 

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing school vouchers three years ago, the controversial school-choice option has been slow to spread.

Now, the stage is set for the first new states to launch programs to use state tax dollars to help pay for private and religious school tuitions.

Utah in March became the first state since Florida in 1999 to pass a statewide voucher program, though it is limited to special education students. Ohio's Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to send a proposal to GOP Gov. Bob Taft by June that would build on Cleveland's existing voucher program. It would make state-funded tuition vouchers available to public school students with poor math and reading scores throughout the state.

School voucher programs

Six states - Florida, Maine, Ohio (Cleveland only), Vermont, Utah, and Wisconsin (Milwaukee only) - and the District of Columbia have voucher programs providing government-funded scholarships to help defray private school tuition.

Maine and Vermont have had a school-choice arrangement for students in rural areas without public schools since the 1800s. Nowadays, rural students can use vouchers to attend public schools in neighboring communities or non-religious private schools.

The nation's first voucher program targeted at low-income students was created in Milwaukee in 1975, but initially was limited to non-religious private schools. The Wisconsin Legislature approved use of vouchers for religious schools in 1995.

Ohio created a voucher program in 1995 for low-income students in Cleveland to attend the private or religious school of their choice. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that Cleveland's voucher system did not violate the First Amendment's requirement of separation of church and state as long as parents decide where the voucher is used.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush backed the creation of the first statewide voucher system in 1999.

Congress approved a voucher program for low-income students in Washington, D.C., in 2004.

Utah approved a voucher system for special education students in March 2005.

Even with these additions, tuition vouchers will be in use within just six states and the District of Columbia. While Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have given their approval to tuition vouchers, state courts and state lawmakers still are putting up roadblocks. The result is some states are detouring from vouchers in favor of alternatives that still expand parents' educational choices, such as offering tuition tax credits for private and religious school tuition payments.

Ohio's proposal for a statewide voucher program carries special significance because it is one of only a few states where the state Supreme Court has upheld school vouchers as constitutional.

The problem in 36 states is that their state constitutions have so-called Blaine Amendments - named for a late-19 th century Republican legislator from Maine - that sprang from anti-Catholic sentiment and contain various restrictions on aid to private and religious institutions. Eleven more states have amendments that restrict public funding of education to public schools. Only three states -- Louisiana, Maine and North Carolina -- have no constitutional restrictions on education funding.

State constitutional amendments were not affected by the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which upheld Cleveland's voucher system. In Colorado, Vermont and >Washington, state supreme courts have struck down voucher or voucher-like programs for violating Blaine amendments. Utah's nascent voucher program is vulnerable to such a challenge, legal experts say. And Florida's school-voucher system -- the first statewide program in the nation -- has been struck down as unconstitutional by three lower state courts and faces its final appeal before Florida's Supreme Court June 7. A centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's education policy, the six-year-old program has been allowed to operate pending appeals.

Supporters of school choice introduced voucher legislation in at least 16 states in 2005, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The proposals have died in all but three states: Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.

Voucher advocates say they are optimistic of a victory in Ohio, where the state Senate this month is to take up a voucher proposal that House Republicans strategically attached to a state budget bill.

The bill, which lawmakers hope to send to the governor by June 1, would allot $81 million for 18,000 tuition vouchers of $4,000 to $5,000 each that students could use to flee the state's worst-performing schools. It would be the largest voucher program in the nation, far exceeding the 700 students who participated in Florida's program this school year.

At the center of Ohio's voucher debate is the state's long-troubled public school system. Its largest urban school districts have seen an exodus of white students to the suburbs and private schools, stubbornly low test scores and a big achievement gap between white and minority students. In addition, the state's education funding system depends heavily on property taxes, creating a disparity between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.

Voucher advocates say these conditions make Ohio a perfect candidate for more parental choice.

"This is not an issue of what's fair to the institution or the school administration or even the taxpayers," said Ohio state Sen. Joy Padget, Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee. "It's what's fair to those kids that matters. They're the ones facing the challenge of living in a world that is demanding a much higher level of knowledge to succeed."

Voucher opponents say the proposal is a political ploy by Republicans to court minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic but support school-choice programs. They argue there is no evidence that the voucher program in Cleveland has improved student test scores and say the money would be better spent improving public schools.

"It just exacerbates the problem by taking away much-needed resources that taxpayers expect to be used in public schools," said Gary Allen, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Ohio state Sen. Teresa Fedor, ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said Ohio's public schools are failing because the Legislature has refused to fully fund education. Ohio's Supreme Court has ruled four times in the past decade that the Legislature is violating the state Constitution by not fully funding education.

"Ohio is opening up the door to a voucher scheme without any proof that this is going to be a better solution for failing schools," Fedor said. "The better solution is to correct the unconstitutional funding for public schools."

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) supports expanding Cleveland's voucher program statewide, but he has proposed a plan about half the size of the House proposal. Under the House proposal, parents whose children have failed to meet math or reading proficiency standards for three years in a row are eligible for vouchers to help pay tuition at private or religious schools. Students in kindergarten to fourth grade would receive up to $4,000 per year in vouchers, fifth- to eighth-graders $4,500 and up to $5,000 per year for high school students.

Whether voucher programs improve student test scores is highly contested. Studies of voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida have offered mixed or conflicting results, and a voucher program approved by Congress for Washington, D.C., in 2004 has been plagued by low participation rates.

An alternative to vouchers that may withstand legal challenges involves tuition tax credits. Six states -- Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minne­sota, and Pennsylvania -- offer tax credits for private school tuition or tax deduc­tions for education expenses or contributions to scholarship programs. Arizona's tuition tax credit program was upheld by the state Supreme Court and in federal courts despite a strict Blaine amendment to the state Constitution.

"To stay away from legal pitfalls and get around the Blaine amendments, states need to give the money directly to the parent through tax breaks," said Scott Young, an education analyst with NCSL. "That's the politically sensitive way to do it."

 
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