Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

Why Smash the Falun Gong?

Spiritual Victimology

The Kansas Compromise

Those Revolting Greeks

Covering Israel's Religion Wars

Discriminating Bodies



Vouchers Move to Center Stage

by Andrew Walsh

On August 24, just 18 hours before the school year was scheduled to begin, U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. issued an injunction blocking an experimental Cleveland program that provides about 4,000 students with vouchers that pay for private school tuition. Because the overwhelming majority of the city’s voucher students are enrolled in schools conducted by religious groups, Oliver ruled that the Cleveland program "had the primary effect of advancing religion" and must be suspended immediately.

The injunction set off, if not panic, in the streets then a substantial wave of parental anxiety and a bitter political dispute. "Halting the program at this preliminary level of litigation—no matter what the final outcome, the case will be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—is wrong under any circumstances," the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized the day after the decision. "Doing so the day before school opens is an act of arrogance, carelessness and utter disregard for the needs of children across the city."

Journalistic images of parental frenzy spread across the nation almost immediately in both print and broadcast versions. Dirk Johnson of the New York Times led an August 26 dispatch with the description of one parent’s reaction: "Maria Silaghi did not sleep last night. She scrubbed other people’s floors until after midnight. And then she lay in bed and agonized over whether her 10-year old son, Anthony, might have to leave his Roman Catholic grammar school."

Unsurprisingly given the heat generated, Judge Oliver reconsidered the wisdom of his injunction two days later and modified his order so that the voucher program could continue until a legal resolution of the suits filed against was reached. On November 5, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to ensure that the voucher program stay in place until the issue is resolved at trial.

While Oliver’s second thoughts snuffed the story just as it was building into a media juggernaut, it seems likely that the long building struggle over vouchers may turn into a major issue in next year’s political campaign.

Voucher programs have been highly polarizing since they were first proposed in the 1980s as a way of strengthening alternatives to public schools—then and now perceived to be failing in the nation’s poorest school districts. Supporters of vouchers see them as tools to break a failing bureaucratic monopoly; critics, as a means of draining and undermining public education and a backdoor to upholding racial segregation.

One major roadblock on the road to vouchers has been the possible violation of the First Amendment’s ban on religious establishments. Because 80 percent of the nation’s private schools are sponsored by religious groups, vouchers almost necessarily involve funneling public funds to religious schools. This problem has been so significant that 14 of the 17 current voucher programs for low-income children use private funds rather than public ones.

Cleveland is significant because that is where voucher supporters tried a new strategy: channeling vouchers through parents rather than directly to private schools. This approach, some believe, removes the issue of separation of church and state by leaving the choice of school entirely up to parents. (This reasoning didn’t convince Oliver, who argued that there are almost no alternatives to religious schools for inexpensive private education.)

The Cleveland program began as a state-funded experiment in 1995. Opponents pursued a vigorous challenge in the state courts, and in June Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that the specific funding mechanism—which took money directly from the state education budget—was unconstitutional, but that there was no constitutional obstacle to the voucher program per se. (Over the summer the Ohio legislature created an acceptable funding mechanism and re-authorized the program.) The critics—the teacher’s unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State—then filed their lawsuit in federal court and demanded that the program be halted while litigation took its course.

In the media firestorm that followed Judge Oliver’s decision, a couple of issues received less attention than they should have. As voucher programs spread, state supreme courts (for example, in Ohio, Arizona, and Wisconsin) are endorsing them while federal courts seem to be taking a dimmer view. In June, for example, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned a Maine voucher law—the highest level at which a school voucher case has been decided. The divergence between state and federal courts on church-state issues is an old story in American jurisprudence, but we may be opening a new chapter.

In addition, journalists aren’t spending much time investigating the realities of private schooling. Throughout the Cleveland drama, journalists paid remarkably little attention to the educational and political strategies of the city’s Catholic school leaders and hierarchs or to the Catholic schools themselves—even though 2,500 of the 4,000 students using vouchers were enrolled in them. Instead, the news media focused almost exclusively on the anxieties of parents.

Perhaps this lack of curiosity resulted from the brief duration of the crisis, or from the strikingly phlegmatic response of Catholic school officials. On August 25, the New York Times described Sister Rosario Vega, principal of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School, as spending opening day on the phone with worried parents. "I’m telling them," she said, "‘Calm down, we’ll work this through together.’"

At the top, the Plain Dealer quoted diocesan superintendent, Sister Carol Anne Smith, on August 26 urging parents to keep their kids enrolled in parochial schools in what promised to be a lengthy appeal. "This case will likely end up in the Supreme Court of the United States, where we would anticipate a favorable ruling," she said.

But underneath the stiff upper lip, there may be an interesting story about the tensions between Catholic policy at the diocesan and national level and the realities of struggle at the parish level. Catholic bishops and senior education officials have been very low-key about the voucher issue—even though Catholic school systems stand to gain more than any other group from widespread voucher use. When asked, Catholic leaders say they’ll accept vouchers, but don’t want to undermine public education.

On the parish level in places like Cleveland, however, the money brought in by vouchers may represent the long-term difference between survival and closure. At small inner-city parish schools in Cleveland like Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, between a quarter and half of the student body pay their tuition bills with vouchers. That’s a critical share.

The brief Cleveland crisis went on long enough to demonstrate the likely political impact of the school voucher issue. Judge Oliver’s initial ruling brought down the wrath of all of the Republican presidential candidates. Their only major disagreements were over who supported voucher programs most and who hated judicial activism more.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Al Gore came out unequivocally as an opponent of voucher programs. For his part, Bill Bradley told the Columbus Dispatch that he does not think vouchers are "the answer to the problems of public education in America."

The pundits are already calculating the spins. A gleeful Cal Thomas opined that Oliver’s ruling created "the opportunity for Republicans to break the back of liberalism, win more of the black vote, and rescue part of an at-risk generation of minority children." Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor’s Gail Russell Chaddock reported on September 23 that there were signs of increasing willingness among inner-city African Americans to break with the Democratic Party and embrace voucher programs. On the other hand, Cox national columnist Tom Teepen asked, "If using tax money to encourage the creation of sectarian school systems is not an unconstitutional ‘establishment’ of religion, little will be left of church-state separation. Public schools have been bringing Americans together for more than 100 years. Do we really want, instead, to divide ourselves by religion and then fight over the money?"

But Americans as a whole may be looking for ways to make church-state boundaries just a bit more permeable. Writing about vouchers in the September 1 Houston Chronicle, columnist Paul Greenberg spoke for a possibly emerging middle ground: "Let’s not pretend that it is simple to keep church and state separate in a society so permeated by religious ideals and ideals, but it is important to keep them separate. Both church and state have thrived in America because they have recognized their boundaries. Yet each has helped the other flourish."

After refusing to consider a voucher case based in Milwaukee last year, the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in Cleveland may signal a willingness to address vouchers directly for the first time. If so, they could do so as early as next year—by short-circuiting the federal appellate process after the Cleveland trial is over.

Whether the justices grant certiorari or not, the lines of battle are drawn and the interest groups are ready to rumble. This is the religious issue most likely to ignite in the 2000 campaigns.