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3.26.04
Politics and Economy:
American Education
More on This Story:
School Vouchers Overview

The history of public education in the United States is a long one. The first publicly funded schools predate the nation itself — they were created by the Massachusetts Public Law of 1647. However, the national public school system has also been a long work in progress, and is under heated debate in recent years and recent election campaigns.

Among the hottest issues of the last few years is that of school choice, and more specifically, school vouchers. According to EDUCATION WEEK, "at its most basic and uncontroversial, school choice is a reform movement focused on affording parents the right to choose which school their child attends."

School vouchers, which are "federal funds that enable public school students to attend schools of their choice, public or private," move the idea of choice into a more controversial arena, raising issues of the separation of church and state, as most voucher money would likely go to private religious institutions. Some would say, vouchers endanger the survival of America's public school system.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 brought public school choice into federal law. The Act mandates that parents with a child enrolled in a school identified as under-performing can transfer that child to a better-performing public school or public charter school. However, vouchers for private schooling proved a very contentious issue and even a small pilot voucher program was defeated and removed from the bill before it was signed into law.

But the debate is far from over. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that a school voucher program does not constitute the establishment of religion. And in January of 2004, Congress passed the first federally-funded school voucher program, allocating $14 million to establish a program for low-income students in the District of Columbia. As NOW WITH BILL MOYERS documents in "A Private Agenda," the Department of Education is keeping up the push for vouchers — providing $77 million to private, conservative groups promoting the privatization of public education. Undoubtedly, the issue will figure in the 2004 election.

Below is a partial list of recent key developments in the history of school vouchers along with links for further research.



2000Florida's voucher program is ruled unconstitutional by a state circuit judge (Bush et al v. Holmes et al), but critics fail in their attempt to have the program stopped while the state appeals to the Florida Supreme Court.

The Cleveland, Ohio voucher program was rejected by a three-judge federal appeals court on December 11. The ruling found that the program was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The case eventually winds up in the Supreme Court as Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (see below).

2001The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is accomplished only when President Bush agrees to remove the voucher program from the bill.
2002 On June 27, the Supreme Court ruled that the Cleveland voucher program did not infringe upon the constitutional separation of church and state. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the school voucher program does not constitute the establishment of religion. The ruling reverses the December 2000 appeals court decision, which struck down the program because nearly all the families receiving the tax-supported state tuition scholarships attended Catholic schools in Cleveland.

2003 The Senate battles over a voucher plan for the District of Columbia. After a threat of filibuster originally blocked the voucher plane, the experimental plan was added back into a broader spending bill. According to EDUCATION WEEK, "That chain of events, which meant that the $13 million voucher initiative had been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee but never brought to a vote on the Senate floor, led voucher opponents to cry foul. A similar outcry ensued after the House passed a $10 million voucher plan in early September by a one-vote margin."
2004Congress passed the first federally funded school voucher program on January 22, 2004, allocating $14 million to establish a program for low-income students in the District of Columbia. This will likely renew the national debate over school choice issues, including controversy about public money going to religiously affiliated schools.

On February 25, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Locke v. Davey. The student in the case sought "college training for a lifetime of ministry, specifically as a church pastor." And the exclusion was mandated by the state's Constitution, which holds that "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction. . . ." The Court found that the state's interest in barring tax funds for the education of ministry adequately justified the prohibition.

In early March 2004, the Utah Senate approved a $1.5 million voucher initiative that could give some families more than $5,000 per child in public money to pay private school tuition. The House had already approved the measure, but it faces a final hurdle: getting signed by Gov. Olene S. Walker.

March 15, 2004, The Department of Education relaxed some of the new standards in the No Child Left Behind program as part of a series of steps to make the law more acceptable in schoolrooms around the country.


Sources: EDUCATION WEEK; "Vouchers Climb Jefferson's Wall," Medill School of Journalism On the Docket; The Supreme Court, "Zelman v. Simmons-Harris," "Locke v. Davey;" The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, School Vouchers; People for the American Way, "School Vouchers: What the Public Thinks and Why;" CNN.com, "Legal History of Vouchers;" FRONTLINE, "The Battle Over School Vouchers"

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