States Choose School Choice: Voucher Programs in Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin Expanded to Include Religious Schools

By Innerst, Carol | Insight on the News, January 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

States Choose School Choice: Voucher Programs in Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin Expanded to Include Religious Schools


Innerst, Carol, Insight on the News


Voucher programs in Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin expanded to include religious schools.

As far as proponents of school vouchers are concerned, 1995 "was a helluva year," in the words of Quentin L. Quade, director of the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education, based at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson vastly expanded Milwaukee's 5-year-old school-choice program to include religious schools. Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich approved a similar program for Cleveland, making the Buckeye state the second in the nation to provide government-funded vouchers for low-income children to attend public, private or religious schools. "Those are monumental political developments," says Quade. "There is nothing in the history of educational choice in the country that compares to those two events."

The original $2.3 million Milwaukee choice plan, which involved only nonsectarian private schools and about 800 of Milwaukee's 100,000 schoolchildren, passed court constitutionality tests. The program expanded to include religious schools and elicited more than 3,000 applications at 102 schools. That figure could grow to 7,000 this school year and 15,000 next school year.

But Thompson was challenged anew by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and affiliates of the National Education Association, or NEA, concerning the expansion to religious schools. Ohio is anticipating a similar challenge when the Cleveland program begins in the fall. The details of the Cleveland program aren't yet clear, but it has been estimated that about 2,000 pupils could get vouchers of up to $2,500.

Quade also attaches considerable significance to the political evolution of Gov. Arne H. Carlson of Minnesota, a Republican like Thompson and Voinovich who "moved from a public-school choice posture to the judgment that genuine reform requires full school choice." Carlson recently outlined plans for a pilot school-choice plan for Minneapolis and St. Paul, plus a Twin Cities suburb and a rural area. The plan includes religious schools.

"We had bought into the notion that K-12 should be a monopoly -- one s fits all," says Carlson. "Now it's not going to work. As a nation, we've turned the education of our children over to a union. We've got to try something completely different. Not to trash public schools, but the way to get creativity is to welcome competition."

Carlson's plan will enable public-school students from families who meet the low-income guidelines to receive vouchers from $500 to $3,000 to attend the nonpublic school of their choice. The portion not used by the "voucher parent" will remain in the hands of the student's home district.

On the other hand, voucher proponents fared less well in Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania. In Illinois, the Senate passed a bill that would provide $2,500 vouchers to some Chicago parents to help pay for tuition at private and parochial schools. The program would have shifted up to $5 million from Chicago's public schools to the vouchers. The House came up 1 1 votes short, however, but the bill remains alive for the 1996 legislative session.

In Texas, a voucher proposal also passed the Senate but failed in the House. The legislation would have provided for low-income students from 60 districts to attend private schools with scholarships worth 80 percent of the public tuition cost, or about $3,500, with the other 20 percent remaining in the home district.

GOP Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania this month was forced to withdraw a school-voucher plan rather than have it go down to defeat in the Legislature. Ridge had proposed a five-year pilot program for "educational opportunity grants" in more than 100 selected school districts. KIDS II would have provided vouchers of up to $1,500 for parents to offset the cost of tuition at private, parochial or public schools. …

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