Justices to consider private-school voucher case

Opponents say aid goes to children already using parochial programs


CLEVELAND - The other afternoon at St. Rocco School on this city's west side, the children attended classes under portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, on a day in which all of them would be required to pray at Mass - not unusual for a Roman Catholic school in the United States.

But what distinguishes St. Rocco from other Catholic schools is that the state of Ohio is paying the bulk of the tuition for half of the school's 200 pupils, who are the recipients of vouchers designed to help them and several thousand other children in Cleveland flee failing public schools.

The question of whether such an arrangement amounts to outright government aid to parochial schools and thus violates the Constitution's separation of church and state issue will be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court this month. The justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments Feb. 20 on the legality of the state's 6-year-old tuition voucher program, which is open only to parents in Cleveland.

Barely a third of public school students in the city graduate from high school.

Many of the pupils who receive the tuition assistance were already attending parochial or other private schools, raising questions about whether the program is ending up assisting parents who had already found the ways and means to forsake the public schools.

This school year, the state has awarded publicly financed vouchers, worth as much as $2,250, to 4,456 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, mostly from families living at or below the poverty level. Each is permitted to attend one of 50 private schools that has agreed to accept them.

Nearly all of the participating schools are affiliated with the Catholic Church or other religious groups. Fewer than 1 percent of the pupils in the program are in a nonreligious private school.

The court will be hearing Ohio's appeal of a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the program was unconstitutional, ruling that it had the "impermissible effect of promoting sectarian schools."

An endorsement of the Ohio program by the Supreme Court could prompt other states and cities, and perhaps the Bush administration, to consider following Cleveland's lead. A negative ruling, if broad enough, could effectively silence the private-school wing of the school choice movement.

The Cleveland case also gives the court an opportunity to explore whether the Ohio voucher program is succeeding in meeting what supporters here and elsewhere call its primary mission: to provide an escape route for low-income pupils, especially blacks, mired in a city public school system that is among the lowest-rated in the nation.

Many of the Cleveland families receiving vouchers, which are distributed by lottery, are indeed poor, with a median income of about $20,000 annually. But an analysis by a private group found that at least 33 percent of the pupils who received the vouchers here in the last school year were already enrolled in parochial or other private schools, and thus had never intended to go to public schools, let alone transfer out of them with the state's help.

While half of the students in the voucher program are black, the proportion of students in the public school system who are black is closer to three-quarters, according to state records.

At St. Rocco, nearly every family that secured a voucher was already sending its school-age children to the school.

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