A culture war over public aid, private tuition

Court's signal raises the hopes of defenders of parental choice

Suspicion on both sides

August 09, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At the end of this month, 17-year-old Aaron Bagley will return to school and will worry from time to time about how his family in Raymond, Maine, will raise more than $5,000 for his tuition at a Catholic school in Portland.

Because of the Bagleys' choice of Cheverus High School for Aaron, and in the future for his younger brother, Jody, and because they want the state to help pay the tuition, the Bagleys have become soldiers in a culture war.

It is a growing battle that is moving from legislature to legislature and courthouse to courthouse.

It pits defenders of parents' right to choose their children's education against defenders of the nation's venerable -- but faltering -- public schools and of the constitutional principle that government and religion must be kept separate. Each side is suspicious of the other's motives. And each is ready to sue at the earliest opportunity.

In recent months, for example, opponents of public tuition aid for private schools filed suit within hours after such measures were signed into law in Florida, Illinois and Ohio.

"The special-interest groups won't allow reform without a fight," says Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a group on the front line in defense of educational alternatives. "The parents whose kids are consigned to failing schools will fight tenaciously to protect their children's future."

Carole Shields, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, a leading challenger of public funding for private education, argues that the plans being advanced are "a subsidy for private and religious schools that will leave public school children in the lurch and their parents in the dark."

She adds: "We must roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to strengthen public education."

The conflict is often referred to as one over "school vouchers." But tuition vouchers, which parents can use toward the cost of private school tuition, are just one of an array of methods to channel public funds into private schooling. Other techniques, all of them taxpayer-financed, include scholarships, direct or indirect payment of tuition, tax credits for parents, and tax credits for donations to private school scholarship funds.

In Maryland, voucher and tuition tax-credit measures were proposed this year in the General Assembly but did not pass.

Constitutional obstacles

Lawyers and other strategists are trying to get around the constitutional problems that can arise when public funds underwrite private education -- especially schools run by churches or synagogues, such as Cheverus High, which bills itself as "the Jesuit college preparatory school of Maine."

But the Bagleys and other families that have made the same decision say they are hopeful -- as is the whole movement behind parental choice. The key reason: The Supreme Court has seemed more willing to allow more public aid for parochial education.

The lawsuit filed by Cynthia and Robert Bagley, seeking state support for Aaron's tuition, is awaiting a response from the Supreme Court this fall. The suit was joined by four other families who live in Raymond, a small town about 20 miles north of Portland, who have also sent their sons to the all-boys Cheverus High.

Aaron says the family chose the school "for a lot of reasons. My parents liked the education there better than in the public schools. My mother went to Catholic high school and wanted me to experience it, too."

"Sometimes," he says, "it's a struggle" to come up with the tuition payments. "It usually comes only at the last minute."

If Aaron could have qualified for state tuition aid, the school would have received a payment of $5,379.63 a year for his education. The annual tuition is just slightly higher: $5,450.

Available before 1981

Maine would have paid Aaron's tuition before 1981. But that year, the Legislature cut parochial schools from a tuition aid program after the state attorney general said such aid would be unconstitutional under prior Supreme Court rulings.

Maine's Supreme Judicial Court rebuffed the Raymond families in April, ruling that state grants cannot pay for parochial education. A federal appeals court made a similar ruling in a separate Maine case in May.

Those courts relied on what appears to be the biggest obstacle to public subsidies for private education: the U.S. Constitution's wall of separation between government and religion. The wall was made especially high as a barrier to subsidies for parochial schools by a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rulings came in response to a campaign, begun decades ago, to secure public aid for parochial education -- especially for Catholic schools.

But the new movement behind education alternatives and public subsidies is not confined to support for parochial education. An increasingly popular alternative, now in 34 states and the District of Columbia, are "charter schools" -- public schools that are run independently of local school districts.

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