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Penna. school board passes voucher plan.

A public school board in the Philadelphia suburbs has voted to set up a voucher plan, despite objections that the scheme violates both the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions.

The Southeast Delco School Board voted 7-0 with two abstentions to approve the proposal at a March 18 meeting. The action came after two hours of sometimes raucous debate between parochial school patrons and advocates of public education.

Under the plan, private school parents would receive $250 for each child attending a non-public kindergarten, $500 for each child in grades one through eight and $1,000 for children in grades nine through twelve. The scheme contains no income cap and would be offered to the parents of 1,900 district students already enrolled in parochial and other private schools. The district serves a total of 4,100 children.

The plan was drawn up by board member Byron Mundy, who expects the district will have enough surplus funds to pay for the program. Mundy said he intends to apply for private tuition reimbursement himself on behalf of this three children, all of whom attend Roman Catholic schools.

Some parents were angry over the action. "If there is a surplus, why are there not enough books in the class-rooms?" asked Eduardo Garcia, who has three children in district schools.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued a statement praising the action, as did Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican and longtime voucher advocate.

"I applaud the Southeast Delco school board for taking this ambitious and important step to give parents more control over their children's education," observed Ridge. "Simply put, this plan ... affirms the belief that parents -- not government -- know what's best for their kids."

But Americans United sharply disagreed. In a letter to School Board President Mary Carol Flemming, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn warned that tax aid to religious schools would spark a lawsuit.

"Voucher subsidies for private religious schools violate the constitutional principle of church-state separation," wrote Lynn. "Both the U.S. and Pennsylvania state constitutions strictly forbid the use of tax finds to pay for religious schooling."

But Flemming, who voted for the plan, said the board is ready for a court challenge. "I'm prepared to go to the United States Supreme Court with this," she told The Philadelphia inquirer.

Before the constitutional issues are decided, however, a court may have to answer the question of whether the board has the authority under state law to pass a voucher plan.

In other news about parochiaid:

* The Louisiana House of Representatives has approved a measure allocating tax funds to religious and other private pre-schools for teaching "at risk" children. The measure passed on a 69-33 vote April 6.

I don't think voucher is a bad word," said House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Emile "Peppi" Bruneau (R-New Orleans), the scheme's sponsor. "This is taxpayer money, and parents ought to be able to choose where their taxpayer money goes."

Louisiana already gives massive amounts of state money to Roman Catholic schools. Last February education officials with the Archdiocese of New Orleans gathered to spend a $1.9 million state grant for computer equipment. The money comes from two state programs, both of which contain provisions including private schools in their largess.

* Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the state's most prominent Democrat, has pulled out of a voucher group after learning that the organization was working to elect Republicans to the state legislature.

Bullock had agreed to serve as honorary head of Putting Children First, a voucher front group, but dropped out after learning that a PCF fund-raising letter announced its intention to work toward "a Republican majority" in the House of Representatives and seek the ouster of the current Democratic speaker.

"I'm going to step aside. I can't be a party to partisanship," Bullock told the Dallas Morning News. Jimmy Mansour, chairman of Putting Children First, claimed the letter, which was mailed to a small number of GOP big donors around the country, was written by a media consultant under his signature but without his knowledge.
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Title Annotation:Southeast Delco School Board
Publication:Church & State
Date:May 1, 1998
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