School Voucher Battle Set to Rage in Cleveland

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Back-to-school day is supposed to bring relief for exhausted parents, but for thousands in Cleveland it is bringing only anxiety. A federal judge on Tuesday struck down the city’s school voucher program, which had allowed as many as 5 percent of Cleveland’s students to attend private or parochial schools at taxpayers’ expense. The reason? The voucher program, said the judge, has the "primary effect of advancing religion" (80 percent of the city’s vouchers are used in religious schools). Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. ordered the program halted until a trial determines whether it violates the constitutional separation of church and state, leaving 4,003 pupils uncertain, as schools opened Wednesday, about whether they’ll be able to stay in the private schools many of them have attended for as long as four years.

While many Cleveland parents have viewed the program as a pragmatic response to a troubled public school system, they’ve now found themselves in the middle of a controversy that cuts to the core of the principles of American public education. "Public schools have long held the promise of being America's great equalizer, mixing students of different races, classes and religions in a single student body and passing on the nation's shared civic heritage," says TIME correspondent Adam Cohen. "Cleveland's voucher program threatens to replace that with a system that teaches one faith in one school and a competing faith in another. That's because the hard truth of the city's voucher program, which is capped at $2,250 per child, is that the choice it offers parents is mainly a choice of religious schools." The legal battle may drag on for years, all the way up to the Supreme Court. But with education shaping up as a key domestic policy issue in an election year, expect the battle to be joined a lot sooner by Republican presidential hopefuls.