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June 12, 1999
Column #928


     Many states are passing laws that allow parents to use public funds to send their children to religious schools.  Some courts are declaring this trend constitutional, while others are not.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court will probably have to make a decision.

     Certainly, the most important advance has been in Florida which recently approved the first statewide school voucher plan in the country.  It is actually a small part of a much larger plan to improve Florida schools by a unique route.  Each school is to be graded between an A and an F. Schools that improve are rewarded $100 per pupil.  Students attending schools receiving an F for two years can transfer either to another public school or to a private or parochial school.

     In the first year, only four schools are failing. But within two years as many as 200 schools with 156,000 students could be eligible for vouchers. Gov. Jeb Bush says the goal is to ''see that children learn a year's worth of knowledge in a year's worth of time.''  The law provides $645 million added funding to reward improved performance. There are rising standards of what schools are to deliver. But if a school is flunking, students will get ''opportunity scholarships'' to get out, giving them and their parents a choice that exists only for the affluent today.

     The only other public voucher programs in America involve limited numbers of poor children -- 6,000 in Milwaukee who get $4,400 to go to the school of their choice and 4,200 students in Cleveland.   Americans United for Separation of Church and State fought both programs because they would ''directly pay religious schools for programs that include and advance religion,'' said the Rev. Barry Lynn, its president.

     The Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the constitutionality of Milwaukee's vouchers and the U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to hear an appeal. On May 27, the Ohio Supreme Court found no religious problem with Cleveland's program: ''Whatever link between government and religion is created by the school voucher program is indirect, depending only on the genuinely independent and private choice of individual parents, who act for themselves and their children, not the government,'' it said.

     However, Cleveland vouchers were found unconstitutional for a technical reason that it was a rider on a 1,000 page budget bill.  This week the Ohio Senate passed a new bill that will re-authorize the program but will limit its effect to children in grades K-5.  ''That will leave 281 poor children stranded who will be thrown out of the program this fall,'' said David Zanotti, a voucher advocate.

     A much greater blow came from the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that vouchers for religious schools in Maine are unconstitutional. For 200 years the parents of children in rural counties without a high school received payments which they could use to send their kids to a public school in a nearby county. Two sets of parents who wanted to send them to a parochial school sued, and lost.

     The court ruled, ''The historic barrier that has existed between church and state throughout the life of the Republic has up to the present time acted as an insurmountable impediment to the direct payment or subsidies by the state to sectarian...schools.''

     Barry Lynn applauded, noting this was ''the highest court ever to hear a voucher case, and the justices found vouchers unconstitutional.  It is a monumental ruling in the battle over taxpayer support of religious schools.''

     Jay Sekulow, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of the parents and the American Center for Law and Justice, said ''The court treats religious people as if they are subservient to the ideals of the republic.''  He called the decision ''anti-religious.  It is not neutrality but hostility.''

     Four states have taken a different approach, giving parents tax credits, typically of $500 for tuition paid for private or parochial tuition. Minnesota was the first, then Iowa followed by Illinois and Arizona in recent weeks.

     By the end of the fourth year of Milwaukee's choice program, students were performing 6 percent better in reading and 11 percent higher in math.   In Cleveland, scholarship students gained 5 points on reading tests and 15 percent better in math. Attendance at 59 non-public schools averages 93 percent, much higher than public schools.

     Result: two of three parents are very satisfied.  When philanthropists created 40,000 scholarships to non-public schools, 1.25 million parents applied for them.

     It is time for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare vouchers offer equality of opportunity and freedom of religion. That's more important than the vague fear that vouchers will ''establish religion.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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