Friday, June 28, 2002

Supreme Court upholds Cleveland voucher plan

Slim majority expands options for school choice

By Jennifer Mrozowski,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Thursday's landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming the constitutionality of Cleveland's school voucher program paves the way for Ohio and other states to expand school choice options.

        But there are no plans in Greater Cincinnati to create or broaden voucher systems, which use taxpayer money to pay for children's educations in religious and secular schools.

        In one of the most important education decisions in years, the high court ruled 5-4 in support of Cleveland's system. The majority said the Constitution allows public money to be used for tuition at religious schools, as long as parents can choose among both private and public schools.

        Butler County Commissioner Mike Fox, who sponsored the voucher legislation when he was a state representative, was elated.

        He began fighting for vouchers more than 20 years ago. Earlier this year, he camped out overnight to be able to get into the Supreme Court to hear arguments.

        He compared Thursday's ruling to the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended racial segregation in schools.

        “The Brown v. Board of Education case ended discrimination based on race,” he said. “The school voucher decision ends discrimination based on income.”

        Ohio officials say they want to evaluate Cleveland's program before expanding. Kentucky officials say the legislature would have to create such a system before school vouchers could be offered.

        “I'm very glad we can continue the Cleveland voucher program,” Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said Thursday while in Cincinnati. “But my view is we should continue to experiment in Cleveland through the eighth grade and evaluate the impact before deciding to expand in other urban districts.”

        That offers little comfort to many public school officials and advocates who worry that vouchers drain coveted tax dollars from needy schools.

        “Even if it was ruled constitutional, it doesn't make good public policy,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers union and former chief of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

        The 6-year-old Cleveland system provides tuition assistance of up to $2,250 a year to about 4,000 of the district's 57,000 elementary-age students. The program allows low-income parents to move their children out of the worst-performing public schools.

        Though more than 95 percent of the vouchers are used to pay for tuition in Catholic or religious schools, the court ruled that the program does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates a separation of church and state.

        “In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority. “It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district.

        But Justice John Paul Stevens called Thursday's ruling, which overturned a finding by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, “profoundly misguided.” He wrote: “Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”

        Joining Chief Justice Rehnquist in the majority were Justices Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.

        Joining Justice Stevens in dissent were Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

        “This decision clears the way for other innovative school choice programs so that no child in America will be left behind,” President Bush said.

        Beyond Cleveland, many supporters of the decision remained low key. Key lawmakers in the education debate in Ohio and Kentucky say voucher expansion is not imminent.

        Ohio state Sen. Robert Gardner, R-Madison, said vouchers should be considered only for constantly failing school districts that show no signs of improvement.

        None of Ohio's urban school districts is in such dire straits, Mr. Gardner said.

        “I don't want to jump into anything and put (vouchers) all over the state of Ohio until we can garner the data we need to make sure it's working both fiscally and academically.”

        Many public school educators are concerned about the ruling's implications.

        “It would make a caste system out of our public schools,” said Jack Moreland, superintendent of Covington Independent Schools. “I'm afraid supportive parents would gravitate to another system. When that occurs, your public school system goes in the toilet.”

        Private school educators see the decision as a glimmer of what could come next to districts beyond Cleveland.

        “I should shout because I am currently looking at statements and balances my parents owe who have been struggling for years to pay tuition,” said Cleaster Whitehurst-Mims, president and CEO, and volunteer administrator of Marva Collins Preparatory School in Roselawn.

        Marva Collins is a private prekindergarten through grade 8 school with an enrollment of 209 students.

        “I had a choice, because I had capital,” she said. “I sent my son to Summit (Country Day) and on to Seven Hills (School). The population I deal with wants that same education I provided for my son. In many cases, they can't have it because they're poor.”

        Cindy Kranz, Spencer Hunt, Steve Kemme and The New York Times contributed to this report.


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