- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Leaders of the "school choice" movement have pledged to challenge state laws that still prevent vouchers from going to religious schools following the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing the overall concept.

"We have states where it's legal to provide vouchers for any type of school, and others where state supreme courts have halted them [for religious schools]," said Richard Komer of the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represented a group of Cleveland parents in their case before the high court last month.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 27 that school-choice programs are constitutional, 47 states still restrict state legislatures from approving voucher money for "sectarian" private schools under a provision known as the Blaine Amendment.

"These state provisions will be challenged, and many believe they will be challenged successfully," added David Salisbury, of Cato Institute, which organized a briefing of school-choice advocates on Monday.

Mr. Komer, who has represented plaintiffs in eight voucher cases, said the IJ bolstered by the Supreme Court's decision will file its first lawsuits on the matter in Maine, Vermont and Washington state.

The Blaine Amendment, which failed to gather the necessary supermajority of Congress for ratification in 1875, arose out of a thrust by America's Protestant public school establishment to prevent public funds from falling into the hands of private Catholic schools.

After the amendment failed, many states simply amended their own constitutions to adopt the language, which was drafted by Republican Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine.

Modern teachers unions and public schools opposing vouchers which would be distributed mostly to parents of students in inner-city school districts for use at private schools argue that they "subvert the separation of church and state" and threaten to undermine public education.

"Taxpayer dollars should not be spent on private or parochial schools, but on improving neighborhood public schools," said Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers yesterday. "There is no evidence that voucher schools perform better than public schools."

Panelists at the CATO briefing stressed that the ongoing debate will not be limited to the courts and will vary from state to state.

"The main battle will be in state legislatures anad will be political in nature," said Mr. Salisbury, who stressed that the school-choice movement is not yet ready for a central platform.

"The Supreme Court ruling will allow a new model to emerge," he said. "I hope to see 50 laboratories of democracy."

Parental tax credits and scholarship tax credits are the movement's next goals for giving parents the power to decide how to educate their children, according to Mr. Salisbury.

Panelist Kaleem Caire of the American Education Reform Council said he is not yet a supporter of universal vouchers and that people should be "cautious about actions taken at the federal level."

But Mr. Caire, who worked in public schools for many years, said he came around to the vouchers idea after reflecting on his childhood in a much-lauded public school system Madison, Wis. where less than half of black students graduated and only one of his neighborhood friends earned a college degree.

As a director at the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth, he also noticed that only three black families out of 1,000 were represented in that program.

"I want to see [this country] reproduce another Thurgood Marshall [and] another Colin Powell," he said. "We live in a country where 50 percent of black students and 50 percent of Latino students do not even get a high school diploma."

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