First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 2, August 2002
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
Voucher battle moves to congress, states
By Rob Marus
WASHINGTON (ABP) -- Proponents of school "vouchers" -- where governments give scholarship grants to students in low-performing public schools that can be redeemed at private schools, including religious ones -- won a philosophical battle last month when the Supreme Court said such programs don't necessarily violate the separation of church and state.
Now the debate is expected to move to the voting booth, where voucher proponents might face an even tougher battle.
Voucher plans haven't fared well when removed from the realm of constitutional theory and put before the public in the form of ballot referenda.
Since 1972, voters in seven states have been presented with voucher ballot initiatives on eight different occasions. On all eight occasions, vouchers have lost, by wide majorities. In Michigan, they lost twice.
The two most recent statewide voucher referenda took place in 2000. California voters defeated a voucher program by a 71 percent-to-29 percent margin. Michigan voted down its voucher proposal by a more than 2-1 margin.
Voucher proponents say their research indicates that support for such programs is growing, particularly among African Americans. Opponents, however, cite their own research, which they claim indicates the opposite is true.
Exit polls two years ago in California showed African Americans voting against vouchers at the same rate as other races. In Michigan, African Americans actually opposed vouchers at a rate higher than the general electorate.
While a handful of state legislatures have successfully instituted vouchers in recent years, voucher programs have been defeated in 26 state assemblies.
On the federal level, President Bush hastily abandoned a voucher proposal in the early stages of debate over his education bill last year, in response to strong opposition in Congress.
None of that, however, is stopping voucher proponents, newly invigorated by the Supreme Court's June 27 ruling that a school-voucher program in Cleveland doesn't violate the Constitution.
President Bush immediately called on Congress "to move quickly to build on the momentum generated from this decision," and to enact a voucher-like proposal that would provide tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools.
The very day the court handed down its long-awaited Cleveland decision, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) introduced a bill that would allow children from poor families in the District of Columbia to receive vouchers that could be spent at religious or other private schools.
"It's time for Congress to do its part on behalf of low-income parents that simply want a better education for their children," Armey said. "Needy children in the District and across the country have waited long enough."
A spokesperson for the Baptist Joint Committee, which strongly opposes vouchers for religious schools, said she doubts pro-voucher forces will find much immediate success in the wake of the Cleveland ruling.
"I think we may see a few more [voucher programs], but it's not clear that the court's decision will result in any outbreak of voucher programs throughout the country," said Holly Hollman, legislative liaison for the church-state watchdog group in Washington.
One problem facing voucher proponents is that many state constitutions are even more specific in prohibiting funding to parochial schools than the U.S. Constitution, Hollman said.
She said her organization will monitor legislative and court battles on the issue and become involved when necessary. "The BJC will continue to warn against the dangers of government funding of religious institutions," Hollman said.
Even a leading voucher proponent urged supporters to be "realistic" about the chances for immediate expansion of voucher programs.
Lawrence Patrick, president of the Washington-based Black Alliance for Educational Options, said his organization is "really happy that the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right for parents to choose the best school for their child."
"This doesn't mean that the battle is over -- we still have a very long way to go," he said. "We're very realistic about our opponents in this battle; they're very tenacious opponents."
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