The long wait for a verdict on Cleveland's school voucher program is over. In a five to four decision, the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of vouchers. The decision opens the door for expanding the program to other Ohio school districts, and for other states to implement their own voucher plans. Supporters of the controversial program are elated, while critics predict dire consequences for public education. 90.3's Bill Rice has more on the story.
Bill Rice: Mike Gajdos's son is 11 years old and going into the sixth grade at Our Lady of Good Council School. For Gaydos, the Supreme Court's decision on vouchers is a welcome conclusion to a long and heated legal battle., they tend to explore information about reading and writing and English classes and so forth.
Mike Gajdos: We won. Thank you Lord. That's all I can say. It's been a long fight. And that's why it's been so hot here in Cleveland, it's why I've got this headband on, because it's like, sweat this on out. I knew it was going to be 50-50, because that's how the country is right now.
BR: Gajdos's satisfaction is based on a simple principle: he wants to be able to choose a school he feels meets his son's educational needs, and vouchers allow him to do that. The voucher program, the first and only one of its kind in Ohio, provides public dollars for families who want an alternative to public schools that don't perform well. Yesterday marked the end of a six year struggle that effectively removed the last legal barrier to allowing Ohio and some other states to implement and expand such programs.
Those who have opposed vouchers remain opposed. Tom Mooney is President of the Ohio Federation of teachers. Mooney says public education represents a public trust.
Tom Mooney: Everybody pays taxes to support public schools, but in return everybody gets a say, everybody gets a vote through electing local school boards and passing local levies on how public school;s are governed and funded. Vouchers, whether it's religion or not involved, breaks that bargain. Because now my tax money is being used so you can run off and send your kid to a prvate school over which the public has no say in terms of what they teach or how it's run.
BR: But Mooney also sees an ulterior motive to vouchers. He sees it as one of several initiatives engineered by lawmakers to undermine public schools.
TM: No question there are ideologues in the legislature who want to privatize education generally, and will use vouchers now again. That'll be back on the front burner as well as trying to expand the charter schools.
BR: Others who oppose vouchers aren't quite so cryptic. Official in the Cleveland district say they're not opposed to sending kids to private parochial schools. Lisa Ruda, speaking for Cleveland Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was out of town when the court's decision was announced, says they're not even opposed to using public funds for vouchers. What they are opposed to, Ruda says, is raiding what's called the Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, or DPIA fund, to pay for vouchers.
Lisa Ruda: DPIA funds are those specific funds earmarked for the neediest children, children that face significant challenges. These are the same funds that have been taken over the past six year to fund the voucher program. This, I submit to you, is simply wrong.
BR: Ruda also criticizes the court for relying on what she says is outdated information in their deliberations. She says the voucher program was established when the Cleveland district faced a much different circumstance than it does today.
LR: While the court was quick to note that the district was in the midst of a financial crisis unprecedented in the history of education in America, it failed to note that this year the same state auditor came back and said they've completed an audit and our financial records are clean as a whistle.
BR: Ruda and school board Chairman Hilton Smith both say the district has continued to work willingly with the voucher system despite their objections to it.
Now that the high court has made its ruling, what happens next? Many are convinced that the program will be expanded to other school districts, and that voucher programs will quickly crop up in other states that have been waiting for the high court's ruling before going ahead with programs similar to Ohio's. Cleveland State University Law professor James Wilson say while the legal battle is over, there is much political wrangling ahead over vouchers.
James Wilson: This only decided the constitutionality of the program. The big issue still remains in the future as to whether or not legislatures will pass these programs and whether or not they will be successful. And in a sense what the court has said is we're shifting this difficult and important issue from the legal arena to the political arena.
BR: David Zanotti, President of the conservative group The Ohio Roundtable and long a champion of vouchers and other so-caled school choice measures, says politicians in Ohio were very thorough in crafting a voucher plan.
David Zanotti: I was around when the original legislation was put together, and know that the team that put the pieces together were consummately concerned, ultimately concerned, that whatever we put together, it was constitutional, that it skewed against no one, that it favored no one in such a way that it would violate any principle of the constitution.
BR: Zannotti says the court's ruling shows that Ohio legislators got it right. And for all his enthusiasm for vouchers, he says policy-makers must be diligent in keeping it right, and not lose sight of other school choice initiatives.
DZ: We would never present this as the be-all and end-all solution to public education. Absolutely not. It's one piece of the puzzle. In principle could it go awry? Sure, some lawmaker cfould do it wrong. Sould that be opposed? Absolutely.
BR: But Zanotti also believes that it can be done right. And right or wrong, through its ruling the court has told legislators around the nation that they're free to proceed. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.