Poor grade for vouchers
A judge flunks Cleveland's use of vouchers for parochial schools.
But will that stall the movement?
By Jodie Morse
December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 11:38 a.m. EST (1638 GMT)
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
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
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Cover Date: December 31, 1999