Monday, February 18, 2002

Court will settle voucher debate


Decision on Cleveland case will have nationwide impact

By Fredreka Schouten
Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — Roberta Kitchen was stunned nine years ago when her daughter came home from elementary school and announced that a student had broken a teacher's arm.

        That wasn't the end of it. Drugs and violence rapidly were pervading the public school in their gritty section of east Cleveland. And despite the B's and C's on her report card, Tiffany could barely read.

        Ms. Kitchen became an instant single parent after Tiffany's birth mother could no longer care for her and her siblings. The 53-year-old knew she would struggle to raise five kids on her own. “But I never in my wildest dreams thought that the struggle would rest with education,” she said.

ON THE WEB
www.policymattersohio.org, Policy Matters Ohio

www.cmsdnet.net, Cleveland Municipal School District

www.indiana.edu/~iuice/, Indiana Center for Evaluation

        “When I found that they were not learning, and they were not safe, I had to do something.”

        Three years later, Ms. Kitchen found her escape hatch when the state of Ohio approved a voucher program that gives parents tuition help to send their children to private and parochial schools.

        In a landmark case that could alter the blistering voucher debate, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear arguments Wednesday on whether Ohio's system represents direct government support of parochial schools and, therefore, violates the Constitution's ban on state promotion of religion.

        One of just three publicly funded voucher programs in the nation, the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Grant Program provides up to $2,250 a year in tuition to more than 4,400 students who want to flee public schools in a city where fewer than half of students graduate.

        “A victory here will provide new momentum to efforts to expand school choice,” said Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, which represents several Cleveland voucher parents in the Supreme Court case.

A contentious debate
        A key factor justices likely will consider is that although the program is open to nearby public schools and nonsectarian private schools, virtually all the voucher recipients attend religious schools.

        Voucher advocates argue the Cleveland program does not illegally use tax dollars to promote religion because parents, rather than state officials, decide which schools their children will attend.

        Anti-voucher groups question how much choice Cleveland parents really have when nonreligious private schools account for only three of the 50 schools in the program.

        It's as if the state said to parents, “"Here's your check. You can spend it at any of these 10 stores. Nine of them sell religious merchandise,'” said Elliot Mincberg of the anti-voucher People for the American Way Foundation.

        Religious schools dominate the program, in part, because their tuition usually is low enough to make vouchers appealing. Several secular schools that had participated in the program at its inception converted to charter schools or closed.

        Another twist for the justices to ponder is recent research showing that a third of the pupils receiving tuition help had attended private or parochial schools before receiving vouchers.

        That poses the question of whether a program aimed at rescuing low-income students from the faltering Cleveland public school system has ended up subsidizing private-school costs for parents who already could afford the tuition.

        On Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the nation, an increasingly contentious debate has emerged about vouchers. The battle pits teachers' unions and civil rights groups, who argue that vouchers undermine public schools, against political conservatives and an emerging group of urban parents like Ms. Kitchen, who believe vouchers represent their children's sole escape from failing schools.

The options
        A Supreme Court ruling strongly favoring the Cleveland program could encourage states, and possibly federal lawmakers, to expand the use of vouchers. Besides Cleveland, taxpayer-funded vouchers are used in only two other places: Milwaukee, where more than 10,000 students participate, and Florida, where 47 students use vouchers through a program aimed at helping youngsters leave low-performing schools.

        By contrast, a negative ruling could chill the voucher movement and force school-choice advocates to push for other alternatives, such as tax breaks for private-school tuition and expansion of charter schools.

        “My money would be on tuition tax credits as the next big thing,” said Henry Levin of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at New York's Columbia University.

        Six states — Minnesota, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania — have adopted or expanded tax credits programs in recent years. President Bush this month proposed a $2,500 tax credit for parents whose children attend chronically failing public schools.

        To date, most research has not clearly concluded whether vouchers achieve their primary goal: boosting student achievement.

        Today, the Cleveland voucher program helps Ms. Kitchen send her youngest child, 11-year-old Toshika, to St. John Nottingham Lutheran School, where 65 of the 180 students receive vouchers.

Religious orientation
        While solving fractions and learning about American Indians in social studies are a regular part of the school week at St. John, so is Bible study. And every Wednesday morning, all students at the 110-year-old school troop into the church building for mandatory religious services.

        “We don't push that the students have to be members of our church,” Principal Susan Ophardt said. “But we do want them to believe in Jesus as their savior.”

        Ms. Kitchen said she has no quarrel with the religious instruction Toshika gets at school. She just wants her to get a solid education so that she can escape the life that awaits other neighborhood kids.

        “The important thing to me is that my children have a chance,” she said. “Too many of our young boys and our young girls are on the street, prostituting themselves, or they fill up the prisons.

        “I don't want that for my children,” Ms. Kitchen said. “And I don't want that for any children.”

       



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