• U.S.

Poor Grade For Vouchers

3 minute read
Jodie Morse

Walter Milancuk’s public-school horror story began early, when his son Derrick spent kindergarten in an overcrowded roomful of students who regularly fought in class and cursed the teacher. Milancuk wanted to transfer Derrick, but his salary as a forklift driver couldn’t cover private-school tuition. Yet Milancuk found a way out, thanks to Cleveland’s pioneering school-voucher program, which granted him close to $1,500 in state funds to help enroll Derrick at St. Stanislaus, a nearby Catholic school. Now Derrick wears a crisp uniform. His reading has improved. And the weekly Mass and Bible study have moved Derrick to say his daily prayers without prompting. Says his dad, “The school is really building his faith.”

That may prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. Last week a federal judge struck down Cleveland’s voucher program, ruling that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Citing Jefferson and Madison, Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. wrote that because four-fifths of the private schools participating in the voucher program are religious, the program robs parents of “genuine choice” between sectarian and secular schools, thus “advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination.” The decision is the fourth in recent months to bar the use of vouchers in parochial schools, and voucher opponents–mainly teachers’ unions and liberal interest groups–see it as a major victory.

Voucher backers–an unusual coalition of inner-city parents and conservative groups–retort that the judge misread both the Cleveland program and the First Amendment. They point out that Cleveland parents who don’t like parochial schools can send their kids to the city’s regular public schools, or to public charter schools and magnet schools. Clint Bolick, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which defended the voucher program, says, “No one can compel a child into the program or into a religious school.”

Despite its recent setbacks, the voucher movement is gaining ground in state legislatures and some state courts. This fall Florida started the first statewide voucher program. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the use of vouchers in parochial schools in Milwaukee. In the presidential campaign, G.O.P. candidates John McCain and George W. Bush are trumpeting voucher proposals. While Vice President Al Gore launched an ad that calls vouchers a “big mistake,” his Democratic opponent Bill Bradley supports them, at least as “experiments.”

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear several school-choice cases, legal experts suspect the more clear-cut Cleveland case might prod it into action. In the meantime, Judge Oliver is allowing Derrick Milancuk and nearly 4,000 other students in the Cleveland voucher program to remain in their schools while his ruling is on appeal.

–By Jodie Morse

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com