Published August 12, 2002
WASHINGTON – With America's youth preparing to return to the classroom, activists in the fight over school vouchers are preparing for legal and political warfare.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a voucher program in Cleveland last June the battleground has shifted to states whose constitutions may be more strictly interpreted.
"Now the Supreme Court has ruled, under our system, what happens is that the state courts and the state constitutions come into play," David Strom of the American Federation of Teachers said.
Already on Monday, a state judge in Florida shot down the voucher program, citing language in the state constitution.
"No revenue of the state ... shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution," the constitution reads.
Forty-seven state constitutions seem to throw up roadblocks to school vouchers based on language that has been tracked to Blaine Amendments. Blaine Amendments were named after a 19th-century Republican senator who was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic.
Voucher supporters say the law is based on radical and outdated thinking but voucher opponents are propping it up nonetheless.
"The unions, the administrators, the school boards, and a variety of other kind[s] of extremist groups are opposing it based on actually an old law that represented bigotry called the Blaine Amendment," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.
But voucher opponents say no matter what the origin of the law, the courts are bound by it.
And they say voucher programs undermine the public schools.
"For every student who comes out of the public schools and goes to a voucher school, then the public school system would receive many thousands of dollars less from the state," Strom said.
Even so, voucher supporters say parents should have a choice.
"Vouchers or scholarships or whatever you call them are not about taxpayer money paying for religious institutions, what they are about is paying for education that parents deem most appropriate for their children," Allen said.
Florida plans to appeal the state court ruling. Similar legal battles may be fought across the country, casting a shadow over the educational future of thousands of students who hope to get state help to attend private schools.