Supreme Court wrong to pass on school vouchers

November 16, 1998

The Miami Herald said in an editorial Friday:

THE Supreme Court did no favor for state legislators by ducking the issue of school vouchers that may be cashed at religious schools. The political struggle over vouchers needs clear thinking and legal guidance from the court.

The issue most likely will confront Florida's legislators in the spring.

Despite the obvious First Amendment issues posed by the flow of public money into religious schools via vouchers, only Justice Stephen Breyer voted to review the issues raised by Wisconsin's voucher program. The Wisconsin courts had upheld the voucher program, saying that it did not favor religion because vouchers are given to parents who decide where to send their children.

A slippery slope

The Wisconsin program demonstrates how slippery a slope vouchers are. Wisconsin started out in 1990 with a pilot program in which 337 children of low-income families used vouchers at private, nonsectarian schools. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved using vouchers at religious schools, the program included them this year and grew to 15,000 slots. Each voucher now has doubled, to $4,900.

Voucher programs have been somewhat popular because their supporters have limited their use -- initially -- to low-income families who live in neighborhoods whose schools have low test scores. But studies in Wisconsin have shown only small improvements in math scores, and none in reading scores, by children in the voucher program.

Opponents argue that vouchers and charter schools merely drain tax dollars from public education and distract attention from the need to improve inner-city schools. But more worrisome is the danger that vouchers will result in the religious Balkanization of schools and children -- financed by all taxpayers.

The First Amendment clearly permits the free exercise of religion, but it just as clearly prohibits state establishment of religion.

Past Supreme Court rulings threaded an unsteady course on this issue. They have allowed state payment for remedial programs in a nonsectarian atmosphere at religious schools while overturning New York law that permitted Hasidic Jews to create a state-funded school for the retarded children of their community.

A finger to the wind

Perhaps the Supreme Court is waiting for conflicting appellate-court decisions on vouchers. Perhaps it is putting up a finger into the ideological winds. Whatever it is doing, its failure to take up the Wisconsin case will prolong the current American cultural war -- at some peril to the Constitution.

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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