Vouchers decision only beginning of political debate, sides say

WASHINGTON — Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school vouchers is only the beginning of a broader legal and political debate, according to both opponents and advocates of vouchers.

"This case was not about whether there should be vouchers, but whether there could be vouchers," said Judith French, the former Ohio attorney general who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that Cleveland’s school choice program for low-income students passed constitutional muster.

French participated in one of two panel discussions Friday hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"I believe this decision allows us to experiment with vouchers," French said. "But that’s what it is — an experiment, not a mandate."

In the case, Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, justices voted 5-4 that Cleveland’s program does not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause by allowing parents to choose to send their children to private religious schools.

Of the 4,400 low-income Cleveland students receiving vouchers of up to $2,250, 96 percent attend religious schools.

Though the Supreme Court’s decision may settle federal law, state courts could still come down harder on voucher programs, said Elliot Mincberg, co-counsel for voucher opponents in Cleveland and general counsel to People for the American Way, which also opposes vouchers.

"By no means is this the end of the legal road," he said. "The fight with regard to school vouchers has only just begun."

Some states are more restrictive than others on the use of using public funds for religious purposes, said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the pro-vouchers U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said 17 states are restrictive, 16 are permissive and 17 are uncertain.

"So you have about a third going in each direction," Chopko said. "This decision does not impact states directly. The ruling sets a constitutional floor, not a ceiling."

The political debate will likely center on whether vouchers take funds from public schools and how to hold private schools accountable to the public. Public schools receive $347 billion at all levels of government.

"This decision is more about the future of the public schools than about the future of the establishment clause," said Marc Egan, director of the Voucher Strategy Center at the National School Boards Association, which opposes school choice.

"With vouchers, there’s no accountability to the public," Egan said. "Vouchers just hand over tax money, no questions asked."

Voucher proponents argue parental choice is what keeps private schools on their toes.

"There is no single test that will determine if a school is successful, just as there’s no single model for a successful education," said William F. Davis, deputy secretary for schools at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "To say we’re not accountable is ridiculous. We’re accountable to parents every day."

One pro-voucher activist echoed the point.

"The measure of success is not only determined by test scores," said Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice Inc. "We also want to know that kids are safe, that they’ll graduate and that people in the schools care about them."

Walden-Ford, who is black, sent one of her children to a private school after he repeatedly got into trouble in public school. He graduated from high school with honors and is now in the U.S. Marines. Walden-Ford said she wants other parents, especially low-income blacks in Washington, to have that choice.

"We can’t sit around and wait and sacrifice our kids," she said. "How long can we wait?"

Mincberg rejected that logic.

"Anyone who thinks that vouchers really serve parents is just buying into right-wing propaganda," he said. "Vouchers don’t deal with the real issues the public schools face, like inadequate funding."

The National School Boards Association’s Egan said, "Most public schools in this country are doing just fine. Some are in trouble, but most are just fine."

The political implications of school vouchers are also an open question, according to E.J. Dionne, co-chair of the Pew Forum and a columnist at the Washington Post.

"It will be interesting to see how wide and deep the support for vouchers is in the black community," Dionne said. "If the Republicans can pick up even 10 percent [more] black voters on the voucher issue, that’s a huge plus for them."

Ninety percent of blacks voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, with only 9 percent voting for President Bush.
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© 2002, McClatchy/Tribune Information Services