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Victory For Vouchers

A court's ruling that they can be used for religious schools is a major move toward free choice

By Adam Cohen

TIME magazine

Milwaukee's spectrum school for pregnant and at-risk teens tried hard to keep God at arm's length. The private school was established in buildings next to a Catholic parish, but the school went through the formality of buying the property from the church for $1. The teacher providing the students with moral direction was not a priest but a former priest. And, yes, there was a giant cross carved in the side of one of the school's buildings, but it was covered over with a cross-shaped air-conditioning unit.

Private schools like Spectrum had good financial reason to exclude religion. Under Milwaukee's pioneering school-voucher program, poor families got state-funded vouchers for tuition at public or private schools. The catch was that the vouchers could not be used at religious schools, on the ground that it would violate the principle of church-state separation.

Well, God can come back now, thanks to a ruling last week by Wisconsin's highest court that there is no such constitutional problem. The Wisconsin supreme court is the highest court ever to uphold religious-school vouchers, and both sides in the bitter national debate over vouchers are calling this a watershed decision. "It has amazing potential to shake up the political landscape," says Clint Bolick of the Institute of Justice, which argues for voucher programs around the country. But opponents insist the court got the First Amendment law wrong and say they will win if the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For years school vouchers were the darling of conservatives like University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, but they seemed more like an academic exercise than achievable public policy. Factor in the fierce opposition of teachers' unions, which view vouchers as a threat to jobs, and they seemed like a very long shot. But lately vouchers have been picking up steam. Democrats like Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and former New York Congressman Floyd Flake have joined Republicans in advocating school choice. And last week venture capitalist Ted Forstmann and Wal-Mart heir John Walton announced the Children's Scholarship Fund, a $200 million initiative to provide scholarships for 50,000 children to attend private or parochial schools.

Supporters of the use of vouchers for religious schools say they're eager for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In fact, Bolick says his group would support an appeal of the Wisconsin decision even though it won below. But Barry Lynn, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says voucher backers are celebrating too soon. The current conservative court has never endorsed the kind of direct state funding of religious institutions that a school voucher represents. "Every parochial school is first and foremost a ministry," says Lynn. "The court has moved, but it hasn't moved that far."

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Cover Date: June 22, 1998

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