News & Reviews

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

Ruling stings poor students, but yields a little good news
Technicality kills Cleveland vouchers
When it comes to school vouchers, a rule's a rule-even if that rule has been gathering dust for more than a century. So said the Ohio Supreme Court last week when it knocked the cobwebs off a musty technicality to shoot down Cleveland's landmark school choice program. In a 5-2 majority opinion, the court invoked for the first time in modern memory the state's "single-subject rule," a constitutional provision holding that potentially controversial legislation must be passed by the state assembly in a standalone bill. To ease passage in 1995, Ohio lawmakers had rolled the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, as the voucher program is known, into the state's budget bill. Now, if more than 4,000 voucher students are to attend schools chosen by their families this fall, the Ohio legislature must reshape, debate, and approve an entirely new bill by the end of this month. That's the bad news. The good news is that the court also found that the Cleveland program does not-as voucher opponents had vehemently argued-violate the separation of church and state. "We conclude that the school voucher program has a secular legislative purpose, does not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and does not excessively entangle government with religion," wrote Justice Paul Pfeifer. That finding angered some anti-voucher activists, but Ohio Education Association (OEA) president Michael Billirakis said, "We'll take any victory the court will give us." David Zanotti, a school choice activist, expects "a very fierce battle" in the legislature over passage of a new voucher bill. He worries that despite GOP control of the legislature and state house, too many Republicans have been "lukewarm" on the issue. In addition, the OEA last week "re-declared war on school choice," Mr. Zanotti said. Is there anything in the plus column for voucher advocates? "If parents and children get to tell their stories, the new legislation should pass," said Mr. Zanotti. "If it boils down to money and politics, those children could be in real trouble." Anxious month for voucher kids
Back to the old drawing board
Both voucher advocates and opponents claim the Ohio Supreme Court's anti-voucher ruling as a political victory, but it's Cleveland kids and parents who are suffering a practical defeat. "I could jump off a building right now," said Elizabeth Henry, whose daughter is attending private school this year using voucher funds. "This program means everything to us." Ms. Henry had been so discouraged by violence and poor academics in the city's public schools that she allowed her eldest son to drop out at age 17. When her family qualified for a $1,300 tuition credit under the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Ms. Henry leapt at the chance to send her daughter to a private school. More than 3,500 students received state tuition assistance this year; even more were expected to enter the program this fall. Where will those students wind up? Because their families are low-income, the most likely destination is back to public schools. Cleveland voucher program administrator Bert Holt said her staff is fielding calls from anxious voucher parents: "Parents have been pleased to have this educational opportunity for their kids-pleased academically, socially, and morally. We are hopeful that our general assembly will continue to look at this issue of parent satisfaction and pass a new bill quickly." will school funding issue affect vouchers?
The rain in Maine
Vouchers for religious schools may have suffered another blow last week at the federal court level. The case does not directly involve voucher programs such as Cleveland's, but a federal appeals court upheld a Maine law that bars the state from paying students' tuition at religious schools. Maine law allows families who live in towns without public secondary schools to send pupils to any public or nonsectarian private school, with the state paying at least part of the tuition. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower judge's ruling that the state is not required to extend subsidies to parochial schools. The case began when three parents sued Maine's education commissioner for state money to send their children to a Catholic high school. The American Center for Law and Justice plans an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has left alone a Wisconsin program that provides financial help for families to send their kids to religious schools. But the justices voted not to hear a challenge to the program and did not issue a decision or set a national precedent. The No-Comment Zone

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