With Supreme Court Halo, Voucher Issue Revives
By John Nagy, Staff Writer; Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Proponents of voucher programs, which provide public aid to parents who seek to educate their children in private and religious schools, say the court's June 27 ruling will revive their effort to broaden voucher programs in the three states that currently have them -- Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin and push them in other states.
"States that were waiting to see what the Supreme Court had to say now have a clear picture of what will pass muster with the court. It will be interesting to see how intense the legislative activity is in 2003 given the economic picture in most states right now," said analyst Todd Ziebarth of the Denver-based Education Commission on the States, which takes no position on the issue.
Teachers unions and civil liberties groups lead the opposition to vouchers. They say the programs perpetuate the problems of failing public schools by siphoning away thousands of dollars for every student who leaves.
"We will continue to fight for public schools and against vouchers or related schemes to provide public funds to private and religious schools at the ballot box, in state legislatures, and in state courts," said National Education Association president Bob Chase.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling focused on the question of whether Cleveland's voucher program violated the First Amendment by allowing parents to send their children to religious schools with up to $2,250 of public money withdrawn from school district accounts.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist found "the Ohio program entirely neutral with respect to religion."
Pro-voucher groups hoping to capitalize on the court's ruling, viewed as one of the most significant in recent decades, face a hard sell. Support and opposition cuts across traditional lines, often pitting ideological conservatives and urban minority parents against public school teachers and civil libertarians.
Lawmakers in 24 states introduced legislation authorizing voucher programs or setting up tax breaks for private education expenses this year down from 29 last year and 37 in 2000. So far in 2002, nothing has passed, Ziebarth said.
Several states, including Idaho, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, may have to make changes to their constitutions before they may consider creating voucher programs.
Furthermore, voucher opponents point to ballot initiatives in California and Michigan rejected by more than two-thirds of voters in each state in 2000 as evidence that the programs are unpopular.
Reaction from state policymakers indicated that vouchers may become a major issue in this fall's state elections.
- Education policymakers view Colorado and Texas as voucher-friendly states likely to serve as proving grounds for new programs.
- The political climate in several other states like Hawaii and Rhode Island, where Democrats dominate state government, and North Dakota, with a strong public school system and rural population, is expected to block new voucher programs.
- In Kansas, where lawmakers passed a voucher program earlier this year, Republican House Speaker Kent Glasscock told reporters he did not expect a different outcome in 2003 "unless there is a major change" in representation in his chamber, where Republicans enjoy a 79-46 majority.
- Voters in Alabama may have a clear choice on the issue in the Nov. 5 gubernatorial contest between Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman, who opposes vouchers, and his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, who applauded the ruling.
- Educators and attorneys expect the ruling to broaden Maine's school choice program to include religiously-affiliated schools. In 1998, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled against families who wanted to use public money to send their children to a Catholic high school in Portland.
- California lawmakers may take up this issue this year. Republican lawmakers introduced a dummy bill that may be loaded with a voucher plan and set in motion.
But even in Ohio, state leaders expressed caution about expanding the program to other districts. The Republican chairman of the Senate Education committee told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer "we don't want to run headlong into this thing unless we have empirical data that it works."