WASHINGTON – A divided U.S. Supreme Court neared the end of its session Thursday with rulings on two controversial lawsuits.
In one case, the court approved school vouchers, ruling that the Constitution allows public money to underwrite tuition at religious schools as long as parents have a choice among a range of religious and secular schools.
In another controversial decision, the court ruled that public high school and middle school students who participate in competitive after-school activities can be tested at random for drugs, just like athletes.
The 5-4 ruling on school vouchers clears a constitutional cloud from a divisive education idea championed by President Bush.
Supporters argue that school-voucher systems give parents a choice of where their children go to school and can improve the quality of education in their neighborhoods. Opponents call vouchers a fraud meant to siphon tax money from struggling public schools.
The court endorsed a 6-year-old pilot program in inner-city Cleveland that provides parents a tax-supported education stipend. Parents may use the money to opt out of one of the worst-rated public schools in the nation.
The court majority said the program does not put the government in the unconstitutional position of sponsoring religious indoctrination, even though more than 95 percent of the vouchers are used to subsidize Catholic or other religious schooling.
Bush has been a staunch advocate of school vouchers and emphasized the issue in his campaign for the White House. Congress last year shelved that effort, but Bush resurrected the idea, proposing in his 2003 budget to give families up to $2,500 per child in tax credits if they choose a private school rather than a failing neighborhood public school.
Following the court's hearing on arguments in February, Education Secretary Rod Paige said he would continue advocating on behalf of both improved public schools and school choice.
Republican lawmakers in Congress agreed with Bush's stance. And on Thursday, so did a majority of the Supreme Court.
"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Key to the court's reasoning in the voucher case was that children in the Cleveland program have a theoretical choice of attending religious schools, secular private academies, suburban public schools, or charter schools run by parents or others outside the education establishment.
Ohio authorities say the fact that only a handful of secular schools and no suburban public schools have signed up to accept voucher students is not the fault of the program itself, and the court majority agreed.
In another 5-4 decision, the justices on Thursday approved random drug tests for public school students who participate in extracurricular activities, ruling that schools' interest in ridding their campuses of drugs outweighs an individual's right to privacy.
The decision means young people who participate in competitive extracurricular activities can be forced to submit to drug testing, even if authorities have no particular reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. The ruling applies to students who join competitive after-school activities or teams, a category that includes many if not most middle-school and high-school students.
Previously these tests had been allowed only for student athletes.
"We find that testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is a reasonably effective means of addressing the school district's legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring and detecting drug use," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for himself, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a stinging rebuttal, wrote for the dissenters: "The particular testing program upheld today is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse."
In a brief, separate dissent, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and David Souter said they disagreed with the court's ruling in 1995 and disagree now.
The court, in its ruling, stopped short of allowing random tests for any student, whether or not involved in extracurricular activities, but several justices have indicated they are interested in answering that question at some point.
The court ruled against Lindsay Earls, a former Oklahoma high school honor student who competed on an academic quiz team and sang in the choir. Earls, a self-described "goodie two-shoes," tested negative but sued over what she called a humiliating and accusatory policy.
The Pottawatomie County school system had considered testing all students. Instead, it settled for testing only those involved in extracurricular activities on the theory that by voluntarily representing the school, those students had a lower expectation of privacy than did students at large.
The ruling is a follow-up to a 1995 case, in which the court allowed random urine tests for student athletes. In that case, the court found that the school had a pervasive drug problem and that athletes were among the users. The court also found that athletes had less expectation of privacy.
Thursday's ruling is the logical next step, the Oklahoma school and its backers said, and the court majority agreed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.