The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether a pilot school vouchers program in Cleveland is unconstitutional because it allegedly violates the separation of church and state.

The Court's decision, expected to come this summer, could mark the beginning or the end of a national school voucher program.

Civil liberties groups are opposing the six-year-old Cleveland program, which gives parents vouchers that allow them to pull their children from troubled public schools and send the children to another school — with taxpayers paying up to $2,250 per student, per year.

In theory, parents could select another public school, a private secular school, or a parochial school.

But in the current school year, the program is underwriting tuition for 4,456 students, almost all of whom are attending some kind of religious school. About three-quarters of the students go to Catholic schools.

The Court must decide whether the flow of tax dollars to religious schools in the form of vouchers is parallel to the establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment.

Public educators also oppose the program, saying it takes both money and top students out of the financially troubled public school system.

Supporters of the program — including the Bush administration, which is urging the court to uphold the vouchers — call it school choice and say that it gives parents alternatives to public education. The administration also supports religious groups taking public funds to use for social causes, such as drug treatment programs.

No bright-line rules exist within Supreme Court jurisprudence in the area of public funding for parochial schools. The Court has upheld programs where the public funds are being directly used for costs the government could properly pay for, such as certain secular materials, or where the funds flow only indirectly from the government to the schools, such as a government employee voluntarily donating a portion of his or her salary to a religious school.

The administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, Theodore Olson, argues that all schools are on the same footing and have the same opportunity to complete for dollars, and that choice makes the program constitutional.
"Parental choice, not government indoctrination, is ... the hallmark of the Ohio program," Olson wrote.

People for the American Way, a group that opposes vouchers, and its President Ralph Neas disagree. Neas notes that there are only five eligible private academies in the city from which parents may choose, and that suburban public schools have not signed up to take inner city students. Therefore, Neas argues, the program is little more than a donation to religious schools.

"There's virtually no choice," Neas said.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the program was unconstitutional, saying it "clearly has the impermissible effect of promoting sectarian schools." The program continued while the State of Ohio appealed.

The Supreme Court's ruling could also impact programs in Milwaukee and Florida. The three Cleveland cases under review are Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1751; Hannah Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1777; and Taylor v. Simmons-Harris, 00-1779.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.