Anxious parents await hearing on school vouchers

Cleveland case offers high-stakes test over church and state

Justices to hear arguments

February 18, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLEVELAND - Eulanda E. Johnson graduated from one of the city's public high schools, and she is employed by the district to prepare meals for its cafeterias. But she didn't hesitate to transfer her daughter to a Catholic elementary school when the family received a tuition voucher from the state three years ago.

More agonizing, Johnson says, are the choices she will face if the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Ohio voucher program promotes religious education, a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Such a ruling would effectively shut down the Cleveland program and thwart similar efforts elsewhere.

"Oh Lord, I've really been trying not to think about it," Johnson said one evening last week while fifth-grader Ebony, still dressed in her navy-and-white school uniform, bounded through the family's white bungalow. "I would hate to go work a second job because there I would be taking time away from being with my daughter. But then, you think about the education - that's the most important thing."

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging the voucher program created by Ohio lawmakers six years ago to offer parents alternatives to the struggling public schools in Cleveland. Many students there were failing to meet any of the state performance standards and just a third were graduating from high school.

The case is considered one of the most important the court will hear this term because a ruling upholding vouchers would probably speed the creation of such programs in other parts of the country and could significantly alter the landscape of American education.

"I think it's a benchmark case in that it really will be viewed under a microscope by many around the country in education," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Roman Catholic schools for the Baltimore Archdiocese and an advocate of school-choice measures that provide state funding for students to attend private and parochial schools.

Across the country, educators, teachers unions, civil liberties groups and politicians of all stripes are closing watching the Ohio case. But the stakes may be highest for the parents of Cleveland schoolchildren. This school year, the state distributed tuition vouchers for 4,456 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. The vouchers, each worth up to $2,250 and awarded through a lottery system, are given only to families living at or below the poverty level.

Johnson, a 37-year-old single mother who earns about $22,000 a year as a food-service worker, acknowledges that she has never paid much attention before to the high court. Now, she worries that the nine justices could issue a ruling that would abruptly end a program she believes has greatly improved Ebony's education.

But parents such as Doris Simmons-Harris say the voucher program should be ended. Simmons-Harris, one of the original plaintiffs in the Cleveland case, said in an interview last week that the program has served relatively few of the city's children while draining money away from the 76,000 students in the city's public schools.

Simmons-Harris, an administrative coordinator at a Cleveland children's hospital, said she had concerns soon after the Ohio legislature created the program in 1995 because she knew the city's private and parochial schools would not be an option for her son, now a high school sophomore, who has physical and learning disabilities.

The money that goes to support vouchers - Ohio spent about $7.7 million on the program last year - could be better spent improving the ailing public schools, she said.

"I go to his classrooms, I visit with his teachers, and I know he doesn't even have his own books for all his classes," said Simmons-Harris, who plans to attend this week's Supreme Court arguments. "They have to share computers. With technology the way it is today, the children need to not be having to share computers."

The question before the court will be whether the voucher program violates the First Amendment guarantee that the government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." In 2000, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Cleveland program, saying that the voucher system had an "impermissible effect of advancing religion." The program was allowed to continue while the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Maysoon Zaghari briefly used the voucher program last fall to send her 7-year-old daughter, Walaa, to private school. Zaghari, who is Muslim, said she sent Walaa to a Catholic elementary school because there were few other schools to choose from inside the city. But she said she quickly became concerned that the teachers were trying to indoctrinate her child in the Roman Catholic Church, and she moved Walaa to the nearby public school.

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