WASHINGTON – Energized groups on both sides of the school choice debate are gearing up for what many believe to be the first true test of private voucher programs in the history of the movement.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether giving parents a publicly-funded voucher to send their child to a religious school stands up to constitutional muster.
The test case was the five-year-old Cleveland Scholarship and Tutorial Program, of which 99 percent of the children involved go to parochial schools. Currently, parents are offered a maximum of $2,250 per child for private elementary school tuition or to send their child to other public schools in the system.
The Ohio State Supreme Court and a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already rejected the program's constitutionality after a challenge brought by teachers unions and other opponents.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court will have a say in a case which many say could make or break the burgeoning school choice movement across the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court last weighed in on a similar case in 1998 when they refused to review a Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruling in favor of the school voucher program in Milwaukee. By not hearing the case, the program was held up as constitutional.
"I think it’s an appropriate time for the Supreme Court to provide guidance," said Robert Chanin, chief counsel for the National Education Association, which has long taken a hard stand against private school choice programs.
"If the court strikes down the Cleveland voucher program that will, in essence, mean that large-scale voucher programs in urban centers are not going to make it under the Constitution," he said.
"I think it was time for the court to eliminate any confusion," said David Young, a Columbus attorney who argued the case on behalf of the voucher program before the Supreme Court.
"It would be a favorable precedent" if the court rules Cleveland is not violating the constitutional separation of church and state, Young said.
The voucher system got its start even before the Cleveland public school system was deemed an "academic emergency" by the State of Ohio in 1999-2000 after it failed to pass all but three of the 27 minimum performance standards set by the state.
Supporters say now that the voucher program is in place, children are getting a better education and a fair shot at the future.
"To discriminate against people on an educational basis, because they don’t have the means necessary to buy their way into a school district or private school, is very un-American," said Jeannie Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.
The Indiana Center for Evaluation, the official evaluator for the Cleveland program since 1996, has found statistically higher test scores in language and science among children with vouchers in the private schools compared to their counterparts in the public schools.
And an independent Harvard University study showed parents of voucher program students are far more satisfied with their children's education than parents of public school students.
Nonetheless, opponents argue that the numbers indicating academic success are skewed and subjective. Furthermore, there is no "choice" suggested in a program that sends 99 percent of its children to religious schools.
"This is a false panacea," said Chanin. "I think the government has said to you, if you apply for a voucher… you will have no real option than to send your child to a religious school."
"These parents are making a choice to where their kids are going to school, if it’s a religious school, so what? So be it," said Kaleem Caire, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
Chauncey Carter’s grandchildren are two of the 4,000 in Cleveland who take their tax-funded vouchers to one of the city’s parochial schools instead of remaining in the public school system.
"I don't care what the (American Civil Liberties Union) says about separation of church and state. Every child in America should have access to a good quality education. If a voucher can provide that education, then by God do it with a voucher," she said.
Steve Brown is an author, radio broadcaster and seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.