School vouchers gain sudden momentum, still lack funds

Court's go-ahead inspires new push for plans that give school-tax dollars to parents.

The Supreme Court's decision to let Cleveland parents use tax dollars to take their children to private schools is opening up a battle nationwide to give others the same choice.

Within hours of last week's historic 5-4 decision, supporters promised a fight for new voucher plans or tax credits for parents in at least a dozen states, including Texas, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Florida, as well as in the District of Columbia.

While opening a constitutional door, however, the court's ruling does not sweep away the practical and political obstacles to the rise of voucher plans nationwide.

These include strong opposition from teachers' unions and people concerned about the likelihood that most of the tax money would flow to parochial schools. Moreover, although some advocates say vouchers will spawn a new breed of efficient, nonsectarian private schools, the money flow may not be enough to foster such a trend, some experts say.

Even so, the ruling clearly gives a boost to voucher proponents.

"We have a tremendous push going in Florida, and I think that Texas will do a lot," says David Brennan, the Akron, Ohio, businessman who helped launch the pioneer Cleveland voucher program in 1995. "The breadth of the Supreme Court's decision is incredible. It's the broadest possible interpretation we could have hoped for."

The ruling also gives new life to a Bush administration plan for tuition tax credits of up to $2,500 for families of students who transfer from failing public schools to private schools or better public schools.

Still, a key issue will be whether private groups will be able to ramp up capacity to take advantage of any new voucher plans that develop. Entrepreneurs like Ohio's Mr. Brennan say that private school capacity is sure to follow new vouchers, which will give poor parents the means to exit failing schools that suburban parents have often had, but less often needed.

"When you have an open market system, supply will grow to meet demand," he says. "Especially now, because purchasing power will no longer be an issue. Give poor parents that and the buildings will go up."

But others in the business of education say the issue of raising capacity will depend critically on the size of vouchers.

In Milwaukee, where vouchers were worth more than $5,000, new schools were created to meet the demand. In Cleveland, where vouchers were worth only about $2,250, the choice remained restricted mainly to existing parochial schools, which historically have been able to charge lower tuitions.

"If the voucher is not large enough, there is no incentive for education entrepreneurs to come in and create new options," says Scott Morgan of Aspire Public Schools, a Redwood, Calif., nonprofit that creates alternative public schools.

And with most states facing big budget deficits, every school dollar will be closely contested. Already, teachers' unions and other mainstream public education groups are promising to fight any initiatives that divert resources from public schools or direct tax dollars to religious schools.

While five states have some form of vouchers, voters rejected them by wide margins in votes in California and Michigan in 2000.

"We believe that the court of public opinion will speak strongly on this case, and that the American public won't abandon their public schools," says Julie Underwood, general counsel to the National School Boards Association.

Supporters of school choice are moving quickly to stake new claims for public resources. In Ohio, some Republicans are already urging the legislature to expanding Cleveland's K-8 program to all grades and across the state. In Colorado, where a voucher plan derailed this year in the Democratic-controlled Senate, backers promise to reopen the issue this summer.

Even in states like Indiana, whose Constitution currently forbids diversion of public funds to private schools, voucher supporters say the Supreme Court decision may change prospects for choice. "We've been waiting for years for a breakthrough to end some of the arguments about constitutionality," says Joseph Peters, associate executive director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which has built two new schools in the city center in three years with the help of the nation's first privately funded voucher program. Supporters hope to see those private scholarships converted into public vouchers.

On Thursday, Republicans introduced a US House bill to give education scholarships of up to $5,000 to low-income children in Washington, D.C. President Clinton vetoed a similar bill in 1997, but President Bush is expected to sign the measure if it passes Congress.

"With this decision, you'll see the pro-choice movement really start to grow again," says Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Some church-based groups, for their part, worry that vouchers could introduce unwanted government regulation, compromising the mission of sectarian schools.

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