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Voucher decision: what happens now? (Notebook: education information from schools, business, research and professional organizations).

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cleveland voucher program ends years of speculation. Voucher opponents have been questioning the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program since the state of Ohio took over the failing Cleveland school system in 1995.

With the start of the 1996-97 school year, participating families could receive up to $2,250 to spend on education in the city's participating public and private schools. After years of watching the case wend its way through courts, the U.S. Supreme Court justices finally heard the Cleveland voucher case (Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris) on Feb. 20.

Educators are wondering about the next step, now that the court has ruled--in a 5-to-4 vote--that public money earmarked for education can be spent on religious and private school tuition.

There will be no clear answer for a while. Although the decision immediately prompted voucher proponents in Colorado and Illinois to vow that they would now try to establish programs, pundits note there are many legal hurdles to be overcome before districts start dealing with vouchers.

Many states have anti-voucher laws on the books, notes Terry M. Moe, voucher proponent and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Most proponents will have to change state laws in order to establish programs. The Blaine Amendments, which were adopted by some states at the turn of the 20th century, add another complication. These legal amendments were passed as a way to deal with the influx of European immigrants, many of whom were Roman Catholic. The language of the Blaine Amendments sets up barriers for supporting religious education with public money. These legal statutes, along with states' reluctance to enter legal battles over education, are probably the reason why 26 state legislatures, to date, have struck down voucher programs.

State laws aside, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision does open a new chapter for public education. In the past, voucher proponents had to counter not only state law restrictions, but also the federal challenge that such programs were unconstitutional. "You will see proponents of vouchers energized," acknowledges Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow for the Century Foundation, and a voucher opponent. "They no longer have a constitutional cloud hanging over their heads."

The states most likely to deal with voucher programs next are the ones where the laws are more permissive and where there are already active proponents. Moe targets Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Florida as states where voucher advocates are likely to have more momentum.

According to the majority opinion, the justices supported the Cleveland voucher program because it was not seen as promoting religious beliefs, even though the majority of schools participating in the voucher program are Roman Catholic parochial schools.

"In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion," wrote Chief Justice Rehnquist for the majority. In the majority's view, the Cleveland program benefited a wide spectrum of individuals and allowed from genuine choice between religious and secular education. Indeed, the Cleveland program is designed for all types of schools to participate.

INDUSTRY IN-FIGHTING Apart from legal challenges at the state level, there are public relations battles to be fought. The majority of parents are anti-voucher, even though most favor school choice programs. Even voucher proponent Moe, co-author of Politics, Markets and America's Schools, concedes this. "Most Americans are supportive of public schools and don't want to do anything to hurt them," he says, adding that voucher opponents have already spent millions on advertising campaigns to spread the message that vouchers will destroy public schools. The exceptions to this are groups of blacks, such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options, who have seen vouchers as a way to ensure that no children are doomed to attend failing public schools.

It takes only a quick glance at the issued responses to U.S. Supreme Court decision to realize what voucher proponents are up against. The National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers and public school administrators, is clearly anti-voucher. "Make no mistake, vouchers are not reform," said Bob Chase, the association's outgoing president.

Not only does NEA pledge to fight voucher programs, but also it heralds improvements in public school performance. The NEA notes that reading and math scores have steadily increased on the National Assessment of Education Progress since 1992 and that more public school students are taking advanced math and science classes. "Vouchers are a divisive and expensive diversion from continuing progress in these areas."

The National Parent Teachers Association "expressed disappointment" with the outcome of the voucher case and President Shirley Igo vowed continued opposition. Ditto that for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Teacher unions are expected to fight against voucher programs, says Kahlenberg, who adds, that they are going to have to do more than just defend the status quo. "The voucher proponents are fight to say it is wrong to trap kids in bad schools," he says. The dialogue must now shift to public school choice and other alternatives, such as charter schools and magnet schools, he suggests.

Voucher Case Briefs

* The Cleveland program has been in operation since the 1996-97 school year.

* Ohio's Pilot Project Scholarship Program provided voucher money for any private school, whether it was religious or not.

* 3,700 Cleveland students participated in the program during the first year; 60 percent of these students were from impoverished families.

* The program provides low-income families up to $2,250 in tuition assistance and other families $1,875 in tuition aid. This compares with $4,518 in per pupil spending in public school and $7,097 for public school students in magnet schools.

* The Cleveland voucher program has cost the Ohio taxpayers $33 million since its implementation in 1996; $28 million in voucher payments and $5 million in administrative costs.

* Cleveland children can also attend "community schools," which are public schools that focus on particular subjects areas.
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Author:Angelo, Jean Marie
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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