Supreme Court affirms school voucher program
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what President Bush hailed as a "landmark ruling" and a victory for the American family, the Supreme Court Thursday ruled that a school voucher program in Cleveland does not infringe upon the constitutional separation of church and state.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the school voucher program does not constitute the establishment of religion. The much-anticipated ruling on the pilot project involving inner-city Cleveland schools came on the final day of the Supreme Court term, which began in October.
The ruling reverses an appeals court decision, which struck down the program because nearly all the families receiving the tax-supported state tuition scholarships attend Catholic schools in Cleveland.
But the Supreme Court majority said the parents have a sufficient range of choices among secular and religious schools that Ohio's voucher plan does not violate the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion.
"We believe the program challenged here is a program of true private choice," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "The Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district."
Vouchers use taxpayer money to underwrite private or parochial school tuition. Proponents say they offer students a choice between good and failing schools. Opponents say they will take money away and irrevocably hurt public schools.
With the crucial constitutional hurdle behind them, proponents of school voucher programs are already looking ahead to expand their "school choice" agenda and say the decision provides a boost to voucher programs in Milwaukee and Florida. State legislatures will have to approve voucher programs if they wish to model the Cleveland pilot project.
"The top eight states on our list are Minnesota, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Indiana, Virginia, Alabama, and Utah," said John Kramer, spokesman for the Institute for Justice.
"I think you'll see a lot of action in some of those states by this fall or next winter," Kramer predicted. "But, in a couple of those states, this fall's governors races are going to be important on the issue."
In Washington, advocates of school vouchers said they expect the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to reintroduce a federally funded school voucher program for the District of Columbia which Congress passed a few years ago, but which then-President Clinton vetoed.
Rehnquist delivered the decision, joined by Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. The five more conservative members of the High Court who often control key issues -- and who prevailed in the Bush-Gore battle over Florida votes -- produced a ruling which supports the pro-voucher views of the president and many conservative lawmakers.
In a lengthy and bitter dissent, Justice David Souter acknowledged that Cleveland public schools had failed, but said that is not reason enough to provide tax money for religious purposes.
"If there were an excuse for giving short shrift to the establishment clause, it would probably apply here. But there is no excuse," Souter argued.
"Public tax money will pay at a systemic level for teaching the covenant with Israel and Mosaic law in Jewish schools, the primacy of the Apostle Peter and the Papacy in Catholic schools, the truth of reformed Christianity in Protestant schools, and the revelation to the Prophet in Muslim schools, to speak only of major religious groupings in the Republic," he said.
Reaction to the ruling was immediate, strong, and largely along predictable political lines.
Rep. John Boehner, a GOP congressman from Ohio and an outspoken defender of the program, called the decision a "victory not only for low-income parents and students, but for American education as well."
Clint Bolick, a long-time leader of the school voucher movement, hailed the ruling as the "most important education decision since Brown v. Board of Education." That's the 1954 ruling that led to the desegregation of public schools.
"This was the Super Bowl for school choice, and the kids won," he declared.
After learning of the ruling, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released a statement slamming the voucher program.
"Private school vouchers may pass constitutional muster, but they fail the test when it comes to improving our nation's public schools.
"It's flat wrong to take scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools and divert them to private schools," Kennedy said. "Despite the Court's ruling, vouchers are still bad policy for public schools, and Congress must not abandon its opposition to them."
Attorney General John Ashcroft called the decision "historic" and "a great victory for parents and children across America, particularly for many minority, low-income students who have been trapped in failing public schools."
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a former mayor of Cleveland and former Ohio governor, called "school choice" an "important option."
"The Cleveland program being declared constitutional, states and school districts will have available another tool in their efforts to improve education and deal with the education challenges that in many instances the current system has been unable to address. "
Meryl Johnson, a vice president of Cleveland's teachers union, said she's "disappointed, not surprised" by the decision and said it will lead to "the devastation of our public schools."
Bush said that the move "clears the way for other innovative school choice programs, so that no child in America will be left behind."
"School choice offers proven results of a better education, not only for children enrolled in the specific plan, but also for children whose public schools benefit from the competition," the president said. "This landmark ruling is a victory for parents and children throughout America."
The ruling comes a day after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional because it includes the phrase "under God." Opponents of vouchers are concerned about the erosion of the separation of church and state.
Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said: "This is probably the worst church-state case in the last 50 years," said "It really brings a wrecking ball to a part of the wall separating church and state."
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