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 citys 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
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 litigationno matter what the final outcome, the case will be
challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Courtis 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 parents reaction: "Maria Silaghi did
not sleep last night. She scrubbed other peoples 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 Olivers 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 years political campaign.
Voucher programs have been highly polarizing since they were first proposed in the
1980s as a way of strengthening alternatives to public schoolsthen and now perceived
to be failing in the nations 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 Amendments ban on religious establishments. Because 80 percent of the
nations 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 didnt convince Oliver, who
argued that there are almost no alternatives to religious schools for inexpensive private
The Cleveland program began as a state-funded experiment in 1995. Opponents pursued a
vigorous challenge in the state courts, and in June Ohios Supreme Court ruled that
the specific funding mechanismwhich took money directly from the state education
budgetwas 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
criticsthe teachers unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans
United for Separation of Church and Statethen 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 Olivers 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 lawthe
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 arent 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 citys Catholic school
leaders and hierarchs or to the Catholic schools themselveseven 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. "Im telling
them," she said, "Calm down, well work this through
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 issueeven though Catholic school systems stand to
gain more than any other group from widespread voucher use. When asked, Catholic leaders
say theyll accept vouchers, but dont 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. Thats a critical share.
The brief Cleveland crisis went on long enough to demonstrate the likely political
impact of the school voucher issue. Judge Olivers 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
The pundits are already calculating the spins. A gleeful Cal Thomas opined that
Olivers 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 Monitors 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: "Lets 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 Courts 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
yearby short-circuiting the federal appellate process after the Cleveland trial is
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.