A court ruling in Wisconsin to allow taxpayer money to be used to send poor children to religious schools is the most significant victory yet for America's growing school-choice movement.
Proponents of school vouchers see Wednesday's decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court as giving renewed impetus to the most controversial option being pushed by education reformers.
While the ruling applies only to voucher programs in Wisconsin, and specifically to a long-running voucher experiment in the troubled Milwaukee school district, voucher proponents predict this court victory will lead to more voucher programs and more pro-voucher legislation across the country.
"This is by far the most significant decision in the school-choice debate to date," says Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based conservative think tank that supported the Milwaukee voucher program. "Because of the way that the decision was worded, this decision will be read with great care by any lawyer or hopefully any judge considering the voucher issue."
With more parents and politicians clamoring for greater choice in the type and quality of schools, public vouchers have grown into the single largest solution. Rather than spending more money on fixing troubled public-school systems, voucher proponents have pushed for the right to use their tax dollars as tuition for existing private and religious schools.
A First Amendment case
But this effort has met a fierce challenge in every state where it has been introduced.
Legal scholars argue that vouchers violate the First Amendment of the Constitution, the concept of the separation of church and state. In addition, educators worry that sparse funds will be funneled off from the public schools that need it most.
For now, education experts say, the Wisconsin decision will add only a symbolic credence to the pro-voucher cause in other states. "You're talking about a decision based on one state's constitution, and every state constitution is different," says Kathy Christie at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver think tank. Like most experts, she assumes the Wisconsin ruling will be appealed to the US Supreme Court. "Most people are going to sit back and see what happens."
While lawyers for Wisconsin's antivoucher forces concede that the court decision is a "setback," they are already working on their arguments and preparing to file an appeal to the US Supreme Court, says Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, which argued against the Wisconsin voucher program.
"This decision flies in the face of the US Constitution and the very clear language of the Wisconsin Constitution," says Mr. Boston. But until the US Supreme Court makes a decision on vouchers, he predicts, "we might see something analogous to what happened with the school-prayer issue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some state courts ruled in favor of school prayer, some knocked it down, and in 1962, the US Supreme Court made the final call. That may happen here."
For their part, voucher supporters pledge to move forward on all fronts, with a renewed effort in state legislatures and with privately funded "scholarship" programs such as the $200 million fund started this week by two philanthropists in New York.
"We'll see both private-funded and public-funded vouchers growing across the country," says Fritz Steiger, whose CEO America Foundation in Bentonville, Ark., has launched a scholarship program to send poor children in San Antonio to parochial and other private schools.
Which way to high court?
For his part, Mr. Steiger doe not think antivoucher proponents will appeal the Wisconsin case to the Supreme Court. "That's risky," he says, "because once the Supreme Court says, 'yes, it's constitutional,' then it's all over."
Indeed, Wisconsin is only one state where vouchers are being tried - and challenged. Court decisions are pending in Vermont and Arizona, and lawyers are pursuing voucher cases in Maine, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well. Legal experts say antivoucher lawyers will probably study the cases in all five states, and compare them with the Wisconsin decision before determining whether to appeal the Wisconsin voucher case to the high court.
If they do, says Mr. Mellor of the Institute for Justice, "We're ready."