Voucher Decision: What Happens Now? (Notebook: Education Information from Schools, Business, Research and Professional Organizations)

By Angelo, Jean Marie | District Administration, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Voucher Decision: What Happens Now? (Notebook: Education Information from Schools, Business, Research and Professional Organizations)


Angelo, Jean Marie, District Administration


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. …

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