WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's ruling Thursday that states may give parents money to send their children to religious schools could transform the nature of education in the United States.
The 5-4 decision represents a lowering of the wall between church and state by allowing public funding of religious teaching. It also fuels debate nationwide over "voucher" tuition programs that proponents see as glimmers of hope for low-income students in troubled schools, but that critics view as threats to the public school tradition because they siphon off taxpayer money.
But as the justices resolved the long-simmering constitutional debate over such programs, practical questions remain. Among them: Will school systems across the USA really embrace vouchers? And do voucher programs work?
Polls show that for all the hype about vouchers, Americans aren't sold on such programs to improve education. The latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll says 54% are against vouchers for low-income families. Most of the state legislatures that have considered voucher programs have abandoned the idea. And whenever vouchers have been on state ballots, voters have rejected them.
So now it falls to voters, legislators, parents and teachers to size up an idea that supporters say will liberate the poor but that foes insist offers false promise and could bleed public education dry. The choices made ultimately will affect where and how the nation's children are educated, and whether, with reading and writing, they will get religion.
"I think the national trend will be to offer more choice programs," said Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, whose office defended the Cleveland program that the court deemed acceptable Thursday. She and other proponents predicted that states will opt for voucher programs targeting low-income, urban students.
She said political barriers -- including longstanding opposition from public school educators and scarce government funds -- likely would prevent any broad effort to give vouchers to middle-income families.
In the schools, opinion is divided, too.
''There's an inherent unfairness'' in giving students money to transfer outside the public school system, said Shawn DeNight, the English Department chairman at Miami Edison Senior High.
But Penny Lins, principal of Holy Name Elementary School in Cleveland, said, ''I'm really thrilled (by the ruling) because . . . it's what's best for kids.''
The Supreme Court's conservative majority had been inching toward allowing more public funding of religious schools in recent years. But this is the first time it has endorsed such a broad program that goes well beyond the funding of textbooks or computer materials that was allowed in prior decisions.
'True private choice'
The court said it does not matter how much taxpayer money goes to religious schools, or whether the program disproportionately benefits those schools over secular institutions, as long as programs give parents a genuine choice between the two.
"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority. His announcement Thursday of the case -- the last ruling on the last day of the court's annual term -- provided high drama in the court's white marble and red velvet chamber.
It spurred an impassioned dissent from the bench by Justice David Souter, who said the decision undercuts the constitutional separation of church and state, will trigger divisiveness in the states and ultimately will hurt public schools and religious education.
"The scale of the aid to religious schools approved today is unprecedented," Souter wrote. "When government aid goes up, so does reliance on it. The only thing likely to go down is independence."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who signed on to Rehnquist's opinion, wrote separately to say that though the decision was "an important step," she did not believe it a dramatic break from previous court rulings involving the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Citing federal programs such as Medicaid and Medicare that reach religiously affiliated groups, she said a program should not be judged by its effect, but rather whether it has neutral criteria and gives applicants non-religious options.
The five-justice majority put virtually no other caveats on its decision, which will allow states to experiment broadly. Cleveland's program targeted low-income families, but there was nothing in the ruling that says such programs have to be so limited.