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Supreme Court Upholds Private School Vouchers

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court on June 27, 2002, ruled that school choice programs like the one in Cleveland, Ohio, are not an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state as long as parents can choose between religious and nonreligious schools.

"[T]he Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority. "It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice."

The ruling was opposed by teachers unions. ''Make no mistake, vouchers are not reform,'' said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. ''If policymakers want to act on the issues that parents care most about . . . they will address teacher quality (and) class size.'' 

A General Accounting Office report released in 2000 reported no difference between the academic achievement of students using vouchers and those who remained in public schools. 

The court was ruling on the constitutionality of a 1995 Ohio law that provided an annual voucher covering 90 percent of tuition expenses up to $2,250 per year. The program was implemented in the city of Cleveland, which has some the state's worst public schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, 3,700 vouchers were distributed by lottery in Cleveland, and 96 percent were used at religious schools.

The court's ruling came on three consolidated cases: Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Hanna Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris, and Taylor v. Simmons-Harris. Voting in the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Voting in the minority were Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

-- 6/27/02

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