- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

The battle over school vouchers is far from over, both sides say, as evidenced by a court ruling last week saying Florida's program violates the state constitution by using tax money to send children to religious schools.

Supporters of vouchers for private or religious schools say they are preparing for fights in other states as well.

The Supreme Court in June upheld a program in Cleveland, ruling that vouchers for religious schools did not violate the First Amendment separation of church and state.

"I believe what you'll see on the heels of the Supreme Court decision is stiffened opposition to school-choice proposals," said Susan Mitchell, president of the American Education Reform Council and a supporter of vouchers. "The opposition is gathering its forces and will work harder than ever."

Indeed, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State the group that successfully challenged the Florida program said he believes "it's still a very fertile ground for anti-voucher activists."

Miss Mitchell said interest in voucher programs is growing among lawmakers in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and New Jersey.

"They'll do it when they have strong, unified local constituencies," Miss Mitchell said. "But they'll be up against opposition as fierce, if not fiercer, than what they've seen before."

But Mr. Lynn said, "Even with a green light from the Supreme Court, most state legislatures are not going to rush to pass state voucher programs. They don't have the money to do it, and they have, in many states, strong state constitutional reasons not to pass them."

He said the Texas Legislature could have a heated debate over vouchers this year but predicted proposals in other states would not get far.

The strategy of Mr. Lynn's group is to go after existing voucher programs for violating state laws.

"With voucher funds private schools in Ohio have to obey civil rights and health and safety regulations," Mr. Lynn said. "If they don't, I suspect they'll be sued."

In the handful of states with voucher programs in place, he said, his group will "continue to look for unfair treatment of students, unfair treatment of employees, and we would be happy to help anyone who is a victim."

The American Education Reform Council said 20,383 students received vouchers to attend private schools in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida in the 2001-02 academic year.

The largest voucher program is in Milwaukee, where 10,882 students received vouchers of up to $5,500 to attend private schools last year, while 4,457 students in Cleveland received vouchers of up to $2,250 to attend private schools.

Forty-seven Florida students attended private schools using state-provided vouchers last year, and more than 300 applied to the program for this school year. A separate Florida program, which was not challenged, awarded vouchers to 4,997 disabled students last year.

The Florida judge ruled that language in the state constitution clearly prevented tax support for sectarian institutions, including religious schools. Mr. Lynn's group says 37 states have similar language in their constitutions.

But Miss Mitchell pointed out that the Ohio and Wisconsin constitutions have such language, yet courts in those states have followed the federal constitution and allowed voucher programs.

David Salisbury, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, said, "We're going to continue to see conflicting opinions in state courts."

He predicted that the Supreme Court, if the issue makes it that far, ultimately would rule in support of vouchers and against restrictive language in state constitutions.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Justice plans to challenge programs in Maine and Vermont that do not allow vouchers to be used for religious schools. Both states have long-standing voucher programs that were created because the states are largely rural and have fewer schools.

President Bush has fought for private-school vouchers, but the issue has not had much support in Congress. Instead, Congress passed an education-overhaul proposal last year allowing students in chronically failing public schools to use federal funds to receive public or private tutoring or to attend better-performing public schools.

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