School Vouchers and the Church-State Wall High Court Decides Whether to Accept the Contentious Wisconsin School Voucher Case

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

School Vouchers and the Church-State Wall High Court Decides Whether to Accept the Contentious Wisconsin School Voucher Case


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Fasten your seatbelts.

The debate over "school choice" is about to become a legal rollercoaster ride that could dramatically change the way America educates its young.

In the process it could also significantly change how the nation's highest court views the church-state divide. The US Supreme Court is considering whether to examine a Milwaukee tuition assistance plan that provides taxpayer-funded education vouchers to low-income parents. The vouchers allow the parents to send their children to any of a range of public and private schools, including parochial schools. An announcement could come as early as today. The Milwaukee plan is heralded by proponents as one of the most important innovations in American education in decades. Opponents, however, say it is bad education policy and a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Whichever way the court goes, the announcement will reverberate across the nation. If at least four of the nine justices decide to hear the case, it will be viewed by voucher opponents as an opportunity for the court to establish a bright-line prohibition against tax money going to church-run schools. If the justices decline to hear the case, supporters of vouchers will celebrate because it would allow the Milwaukee program to continue and would likely encourage similar voucher programs nationwide. Others are urging the high court to take the case and remove any constitutional uncertainty. Legal challenges to school voucher programs are already under way in Ohio, Vermont, and Maine. Three other states, Minnesota, Iowa, and Arizona, offer tax deductions to compensate for private and parochial school tuition payments. But not all states are going that direction. Last week, Colorado voters defeated a measure to establish a voucher program. Supporters of the Milwaukee plan point to the dismal condition of the public school system as proof that the voucher plan is warranted. "It is a rescue plan for poor kids in the inner city who otherwise would be forced to attend some of the worst schools in the country," says Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Utah who is representing Milwaukee parents supporting the voucher plan. Rob Boston of the public interest group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees the case differently. "This has the potential to be one of the most important church-state cases in history if the justices agree to hear it," he says. The case would force the justices to reconcile two often conflicting legal approaches to church-state relations, legal analysts say. One line of cases holds that government money cannot support a religious cause, including parochial school tuition. …

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