School Vouchers and the Church-State Wall

High court decides whether to accept the contentious Wisconsin school voucher case.

By , Staff writer of 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.

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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. Another line says the government may aid religious causes as long as aid is distributed on a neutral basis and not directed at any particular faith.

"We think this is an ideal test case," says Robert Chanin, a National Education Association lawyer who is arguing the case on behalf of a coalition of groups and individuals opposed to the voucher plan.

According to the Milwaukee plan, if a local public school doesn't measure up to parents' expectations, they should be able to move their children to a better school.

"We in the upper middle class already have educational choice," says Mr. McConnell. "We can move to a nice suburb to pick our schools. We can send our children to private schools if the schools where we live are inadequate. What is wrong with extending that right to disadvantaged families in the inner city?"

Under the Milwaukee plan some 6,200 qualifying parents are issued a voucher for nearly $4,000 each - the amount of aid Wisconsin pays per-student. That voucher covers the student's tuition at a private school or is credited to the public school's account if the student remains there.

The idea is that by channeling state money through the parents - rather than directly from the state to the school - it is no longer government money. In addition, it is the parents, not the state, who decide whether their child will attend a private nonreligious school, a private religious school, or a public school, proponents say.

Critics counter that the parental involvement in Milwaukee's voucher payments is just a faade and does not represent a meaningful choice since the vast majority of private schools are religiously oriented. They say the end result is the government paying to have children receive religious instruction - which violates the Constitution. Others call the plan a government bailout for Milwaukee's large number of struggling Catholic schools.

Annette "Polly" Williams, the Wisconsin state representative who authored the plan says it is about empowering low-income parents and improving education in both private and public schools, rather than supporting church-run schools.

Still, Ms. Williams isn't concerned that some children might receive some religious teaching while learning the three Rs. "To me I would rather see the kids indoctrinated with some kind of religion rather than the way they are indoctrinated now (with no religion)," she says.

Many voucher proponents say parental choice encourages competition among public and private schools, competition that ultimately will force public schools to do a better job. Opponents counter that private schools enjoy the luxury of being able to expel problem children, while public schools must work with every child.

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