Setback For Vouchers

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Cleveland's St. Adalbert's, where 40% of the students use vouchers

It's been a rough few weeks for supporters of school vouchers. First came the Election Day defeat of ballot initiatives in California and Michigan that would have created statewide programs that return tax dollars to parents who send their kids to private schools. These measures fell by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, despite multimillion-dollar campaigns by wealthy voucher proponents. Then last week, in a verdict with nationwide consequences, a federal appeals court ruled that the voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Voucher opponents, led by the teachers' unions, celebrated. "This is a great early Christmas present for America's public schools," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. But the unusual pro-voucher coalition of inner-city parents, Catholic clerics and deep-pocketed entrepreneurs vows to fight on. And the Cleveland case, which is likely to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, has the potential to determine whether and how any statewide voucher program can include parochial schools.

What's at stake can be seen clearly at St. Adalbert's School, on a dreary back street in Cleveland's Fairfax neighborhood--a precinct seldom visited by snowplows, where many residents work at low-wage jobs or are unemployed. Yet students at St. Adalbert's sport crisp uniforms and each morning recite the Lord's Prayer together. Discipline is tight; the courses are rigorous. It's not hard to see why so many parents view this place--and the voucher program that has brought their kids to it--as a lifeline.

In Cleveland's public schools, only a third of students graduate, and last year the city district--despite spending $8,502 a year on each of its 76,000 students--failed to meet even one of the state's 27 performance standards. The voucher program, which began in 1995, gave the city's poorest parents what wealthier parents already had: the option of sending their kids elsewhere. Today 60% of the 3,761 kids using vouchers come from families with incomes at or below the poverty line, and 96% of the kids who use vouchers go to sectarian schools like St. Adalbert's.

That last figure troubled the appeals court. The Cleveland program offers vouchers worth a maximum of just $2,250 so that not much money will get siphoned away from public schools, thus placating voucher opponents. The voucher amount more than covers Catholic-school tuition, which in Cleveland averages $1,200 a year (because of church subsidies and teacher salaries about half as high as the public school average). But tuition at even the least expensive nonsectarian private schools is more than $5,000. Clarence Gilmore, 30, a fire fighter with two children at St. Adalbert's, says, "I would love to send my kids to a private, suburban school" that isn't religious, "but the prices are too high." And he far prefers St. Adalbert's to the public schools.

Cleveland's voucher system, the appeals court ruled, gives parents an incentive to send their kids to parochial school and thus represents an unconstitutional "endorsement of religious education." By the court's reasoning, it's still fine for the U.S. government to give a Pell Grant to a college student attending Notre Dame, because the student could choose freely from many nonreligious schools at a comparable price.

The architects of Cleveland's program counter that city parents are in no way encouraged to send their kids to religious schools. Parents can choose public magnet or charter schools, which are free and get far more funding per pupil than voucher schools. For this reason, says Clint Bolick, lead lawyer for a group of parents defending the program, "there's actually a disincentive to choose the voucher schools." Bolick argues that if you include magnet and charter schools in the equation, only 16.5% of parents who exercise educational choice send their kids to religious schools.

If the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court's reasoning, it is likely to affect not only the kids using vouchers in Cleveland but also 8,000 kids in Milwaukee, Wis., and 52 in Pensacola, Fla., who are beneficiaries of similar programs. And George W. Bush's most controversial education proposal--$1,500 vouchers for kids in failing schools--could be dead. Court watchers take note: as in previous church-state cases, the key vote, as in the election case, appears to belong to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.