What's 'Choice' in Vouchers?

The Supreme Court appears as divided as most Americans over school vouchers, judging by their questions at Wednesday's hearing on a case out of Cleveland.

This case could bring a shockwave decision like the court's rulings on abortion and school desegregation.

Or it could not. The judges may skirt basic issues for now, hoping that various state and city experiments with vouchers will clarify or correct constitutional problems.

What is clear is the political momentum for vouchers: More states, along with more urban minorities, are giving up on reforming city schools. Vouchers, which provide some market choice for students, seem to be a way out of an educational dead end for many urban students.

Still, what the court must decide at some point is whether government must take into account the effects of voucher money if the money ends up, even in part, promoting or supporting religious groups that run schools.

In Cleveland, most vouchers are used at parochial schools. Critics charge that the Ohio legislature set up the program just for that result. The amount of money given to each family was so small that the relatively inexpensive parochial schools effectively became the choice of all choices.

The court must decide whether government can ever be impartial in its intentions in giving out money if the possibility exists of it favoring a religion in the public's eye. Trying to set up rules to prevent such a bias in results will take the courts into complex territory. Congress, too, is confronting that issue in its debate on funding faith-based social programs.

While the court weighs the matter, current voucher experiments can also be judged by whether they help or erode a public education system deeply rooted in the nation's ideals.

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