Round 2 in Ohio School Voucher Fight

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
July 21, 1999 12:00 am

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COLUMBUS, OH — A group of parents and educators filed a federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to have the newly revised Cleveland-based school voucher program declared unconstitutional and blocked from continuing this fall, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, contends the program violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of education and civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ohio Education Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way.

The Ohio Supreme Court struck down an earlier version of the voucher program in May on technical grounds but said that it did not violate the separation of church and state, leaving the door open for lawmakers to revive the scheme.

The new lawsuit, however, asserts that the court simply did not understand the issue. The groups said that a New York voucher program struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 is the controlling case on the subject, and the State Supreme Court is not empowered to vacate that ruling.

“Under both programs, the private schools — most of which are sectarian — receive the benefit of unrestricted payments of public funds which the schools are free to use for whatever purposes they deem appropriate,” the lawsuit says.

To buttress their claim, the Plain Dealer reports, the group excerpted mission statements from some religious schools that take part in the Cleveland program.

Our Lady of Good Counsel School, for example, boasts that “total religious instruction is the major focus of the educational program.” The West Park Lutheran School’s mission statement says: “A child needs to hear and learn the word of God constantly,” according to the lawsuit.

“The collection of taxes by the government to support religious education is neither good for the government, nor religion,” said Christine Link, Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio.

“This entanglement will lead to government funds supporting a wide variety of religious schools and trigger greater governmental scrutiny of these organizations,” she added.

Indeed, The Plain Dealer reported, since the program’s creation in 1995, it has been plagued by financial and academic troubles. Most recently, state education leaders recommended removing three schools from the program after The Plain Dealer exposed potentially unsafe conditions and a mostly unlicensed staff at one of the private schools.

In April 1998, an evaluation of the Cleveland voucher programs found that students using the tuition stipends to pay for private education did not achieve better test scores than similar students still attending public schools.

Ohio was the first state in the nation to allow vouchers to be used at religious-based schools, and the program could be the test case that ultimately decides the fate of vouchers, according to Joe Conn, spokesman for American United for Separation of Church and State.

In June, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush approved the first statewide private and parochial school voucher program in the United States. The ACLU is involved in the challenge to that program as well. Read the news release and complaint at /news/1999/n062199a.html.

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