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.
Officials in the Bush administration praised the ruling and said it will help the president's proposals to expand social services funding to faith-based organizations.
A good education is universally seen as a ticket to a first-rate job and a decent quality of life. Polls show that education is among the top concerns for Americans. The court's decision ensures that as government leaders wrangle over how to improve public education, vouchers will be one of the themes, along with teacher qualifications and standardized testing.
Only Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida have voucher programs that involve religious schools. Cleveland's version was authorized by the Ohio Legislature in 1995 to respond to academic problems in the city schools. The program offers vouchers for 90% of the annual tuition (up to $2,250 a year) at private secular or religious schools to low-income parents.
Once parents qualify, the vouchers are allocated by lottery. Checks are made out to the parents, who then endorse them over to the participating school of choice. In the 1999-2000 school year, of the 3,700 students who received vouchers, 96% used them at religious schools.
There are competing claims about the value of private-school vouchers and whether they would hurt or help public schools. A U.S. General Accounting Office report last year said studies have found little or no difference in academic achievement between voucher and public school students.
As public school boards, teachers and civil rights groups vowed to keep fighting voucher plans, proponents predicted the court's ruling will give them new momentum. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, immediately introduced a voucher bill for needy parents in Washington, D.C. Other federal and state lawmakers began talking up ways to expand on the Ohio initiative.
Several states -- Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin -- had joined Ohio's case to urge the court to endorse voucher programs.
Joining Rehnquist and O'Connor in the majority were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting with Souter and Breyer were the court's two other liberals, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The majority previously had allowed public funds to be given to religious schools for specific education needs, such as textbooks or computers. The Cleveland funds are used by religious schools to finance their overall programs, including religious instruction.
Dissenting justices said it was the first time that the substantial character of the government aid was not considered, and they contended that the ruling gives "short shrift" to the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from advancing religion.
That's how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit saw Cleveland's program in 2000, when the panel struck down the program as unconstitutional.
After the high court revived the program Thursday, National PTA President Shirley Igo said the group will continue to oppose vouchers. She said they do not offer parents true choice because private school officials determine who attends their institutions.
But Victoria Pope, a Cleveland mother of seven children ages 5 to 16, said the court's decision will make a huge difference in her life. Her five youngest each receive vouchers to attend a Roman Catholic grade school.
She had worried that the high court would rule against the program, and that she and her husband would have to take second jobs to keep the children in private school. "The private schools offer a quality education," she said. "I didn't graduate from college, but I attended college and do know the value of education."
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