Parents who want government help to send their children to private or religious schools won a major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court this past week. By a vote of 5-4, the conservative majority on the high court ruled that the use of taxpayer money to partially pay for tuition for religious schools does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The ruling could have a significant impact on education reform efforts across the country.
At the heart of the case is a pilot program in Cleveland, Ohio, which offers parents government subsidies, or vouchers, to send their children to private or religious schools as an alternative to failing public schools.
Of the 75,000 students in the Cleveland school district, only 3,700 are currently taking advantage of the voucher program. The program provides parents with $2,200 in taxpayer money to help cover the cost of private school tuition.
Voucher advocates hailed the Supreme Court ruling as one of the most important education decisions handed down by the high court in decades. Supporters predict the decision will lead to an expansion of voucher programs around the country, especially in communities where pilot programs have already begun.
Lawrence Patrick, with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said "we are obviously happy about the decision. We believe that this gives parents a choice, especially for the parents in Cleveland and the parents in Milwaukee and the parents in Florida."
The court decision also pleased the Bush Administration. The president is a supporter of voucher programs, and his secretary of education, Rod Paige, told CBS television that giving parents the option of sending their children to private or religious schools will make public schools more competitive. "Well, I think choice is a fundamental part of school reform. It is necessary to have this type of choice, and I think that the Supreme Court decision is going to strengthen public schools," he said.
But critics called the ruling flawed, and said offering parents government help to pay for private school tuition would take money away from public school systems that desperately need more government funding.
Opponents also said the ruling weakens the long-standing barrier between church and state by allowing taxpayer money to be used to send children to religious schools.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said there is no conclusive evidence that private or religious schools do a better job of educating young people than public schools. "The voucher plans don't seem to work if 'work' means, do they improve the academic performance of students? If they don't do that, then why in the world would we take very scarce resources away from the public schools and transfer them to these private religious academies that don't do any better?"
Voucher supporters said the high court ruling is a major boost to their efforts nationwide. They now predict several states and cities that have been considering voucher programs as an alternative to deteriorating public schools will attempt to follow the Cleveland model.