High Court Takes Up Vouchers

U.S. Supreme Court to decide if Cleveland program, which provides public dollars for religious schools, violates the separation of church and state.

By Michael Charney

“We pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands, One Savior crucified, risen and coming again with life, liberty for all those who believe.”

Students at Calvary Center Academy in Cleveland recite this pledge daily – with the support of public tax dollars.

Calvary Center Academy is one of the 51 schools participating in the Cleveland voucher program now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A federal appeals court ruled that the Cleveland program violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The Supreme Court announced this fall that it will hear an appeal of that decision. A ruling is expected in the summer of 2002.

The Supreme Court ruling is likely to be one of the most important decisions on education since the Brown v. Board case in 1954 outlawing “separate and equal” education based on race.

There are currently three voucher programs in the United States, in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida. While the voucher debate is increasingly framed by conservatives as a matter of “choice,” the heart of the Supreme Court decision will rest on the constitutionality of how the program provides public tax dollars to religious schools.

The case takes place amid a political backdrop of growing criticism of urban schools, which has allowed conservatives to opportunistically claim that vouchers are a way to provide opportunity for low-income students, in particular students of color. At the heart of the voucher movement, however, is a conservative agenda that seeks to privatize public education and funnel tax money into private schools, including religious schools.

Should the Supreme Court uphold the Cleveland program, analysts predict an outpouring of voucher legislation that will extend far beyond urban schools and that will directly appeal to middle-class and affluent families. Ultimately, there is the prospect of two separate and unequal education systems – one public and one private (with all that entails in terms of selection of students and lack of public oversight), yet both supported by tax dollars.

The Cleveland voucher program, officially known as the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, provides up to $2,250 to students in Cleveland to attend private and religious schools up through 8th grade. Some 96 percent of the 4,266 students currently receiving vouchers attend religious schools. Thus the Cleveland program presents the Supreme Court with a clear example of the church-state issues underlying the voucher debate.


The Cleveland school voucher program evolved from the agendas of the Ohio Republican Party and conservative ideological forces. The history of the program stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of parental empowerment.

When the Republican Party assumed control of the Ohio House in l994, voucher proponents escalated their pressure. Earlier, Gov. George Voinovich had commissioned a study of vouchers, which was headed by industrialist David Brennan. Consistent with the emerging national voucher strategy – to transform vouchers from an issue of church/state conflict and privatization of public education, to a “populist” focus on low-income students of color -the commission recommended scholarships for low-income students to attend private and religious schools.

Brennan then went on to raise $1 million for the Republican Party. After re-election, Voinovich pushed in 1995 for a voucher program for Cleveland, whose schools had just been taken over by the state. Voinovich, following the lead of the Milwaukee voucher program that started in 1990, sold the program as a way to help poor students of color. At that time, Cleveland schools were 70 percent African-American, and 88 percent of the students were eligible for the federal lunch program for low-income students.


The main beneficiary of the voucher program has clearly been the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, whose schools had been in severe financial straits following the flight of the white ethnic working class to surrounding suburbs.

Because participating schools must charge the same tuition for both voucher and non-voucher students, it has been almost impossible for non-religious private schools, especially more expensive elite schools, to take part. (As is true elsewhere, religious schools in Cleveland rely on the underpaid labor of religiously dedicated teachers, and on subsidies and support from religious institutions.)

The law allows up to 50 percent of the voucher students to already be attending private schools. Thus while voucher proponents often portray vouchers as a way for students to leave failing public schools, in reality the program has provided monies to students already in religious schools.

Indeed, only 21 percent of voucher students had ever attended a Cleveland Public School, according to a recent investigation by the research group Policy Matters Ohio. Some 40 percent of the voucher students previously attended a participating voucher school, while almost 40 percent entered the program through private school kindergarten.

The state also pays the transportation costs and Title I funds for private schools [all, or just voucher?], making Ohio the leading state in providing public funds to private schools.

Unlike the Milwaukee program, which in theory allows voucher students to “opt out” of religious activities, the Ohio law allows schools to require voucher students to attend religious services and religion classes.


Most observers believe the Supreme Court will rule 5-4 – the question is which side will win. Most identify Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as the swing vote. Indeed, the authors of the Cleveland voucher program reportedly looked at O’Connor’s previous decisions and wrote the voucher law with her concerns in mind.

For example, the Cleveland legislation speaks of parent “choice” and mutes the issue of the money going to religious schools. The tuition voucher check, for instance, is written out to the parents. (But it is sent directly to the voucher school, where the parent endorses the check.) Voucher proponents use this to argue that the state is not directly subsidizing the religious mission of the school, but merely allowing parents to make a decision.

In order to mute church/state issues, the voucher law also included a provision where adjacent suburban public schools were eligible to participate. For financial reasons, however, not a single suburban public school has agreed to participate. As a result, parental “choice” is narrowed almost exclusively to religious schools.

In an attempt to silence charges that the voucher legislation is anti-public education, lawmakers included a “tutoring” component. Under this aspect of the voucher law, parents of students in the Cleveland Public Schools are eligible to receive up to $450 to pay for tutorial services. However, while there have been more than 16,000 vouchers awarded since the Cleveland program began, there have only been 4,000 tutorial scholarships.


The Supreme Court decision will revolve around church/state concerns. Aside from this legal question, there are important public policy issues that the court will not review.

One key public policy issue involves academic achievement. After five years and over $30 million in vouchers, voucher advocates still have little evidence that their program improves academic performance. Independent researches hired by the state of Ohio, for instance, found little difference in academic achievement between students who received vouchers and students who attended Cleveland schools.

The most recent study, released this fall, looked at students in grades K-2. Voucher students entered kindergarten better prepared but by the end of second grade public school students had caught up in most areas. The research also found that voucher students were more economically stable, had parents with a higher level of education, had more books in the home, and were less likely to be African-American than public school students.

A study by the Toledo Blade, meanwhile, looked at the fourth-grade proficiency test results of students attending high poverty schools. Among urban districts in Ohio, Cleveland schools had by far the largest number of high poverty schools that performed higher than expected, given the percentage of low-income students.


If a Supreme Court majority upholds the Cleveland voucher program, public education will irrevocably change. Supporters of religious schools will increase their political activism, encouraging school boards, city councils, state legislatures, and Congress to funnel scarce educational resources to private and religious schools.

While public funds could legally flow to religious schools, public accountability would likely stop at the private school house door. Across the country, private schools routinely operate under different rules than public schools. To name just a few problems: private schools, in particular religious schools, do not have to provide the same level of services for special education students and limited English students; they do not have to adhere to open meetings and records legislation; they do not have to provide the same constitutional protections in areas such as free speech or due process; they do not have to release information on test scores or employee salaries.

And then there is the question of public dollars for religious fundamentalist schools. Will a Supreme Court decision upholding vouchers open the floodgates of public dollars not only for more mainstream religious schools, but for fundamentalist and extremist private schools?

Michael Charney is a veteran teacher and works as the Professional Issues Director of the Cleveland Teachers Union.