The Future of the Cleveland School Voucher Program

Karen Schaefer- Clevelander Charmain Thomas isn't Catholic. Nonetheless, her 8-year-old daughter Sierra has been going to private, Catholic and Christian schools for the last four years. But private schools cost money. While both Thomas and her husband have steady jobs, they don't own a car. Her daily bus ride from work to pick up her daughter from school takes forty-five minutes. After another bus ride, it's usually 7 o'clock before they're home in their second-story apartment starting on dinner and homework. It makes for a long day, but Thomas says she'd take on another job just to keep her daughter in private school.

Charmain Thomas- We were both products of public schooling and we knew what it was like when we were there and times has gotten a lot worse.

KS- The Thomas' pay for their daughter's tuition with a voucher from a 4-year-old state pilot program. The program was designed to give low-income families like the Thomas' an option to Cleveland's failed inner-city schools. But most of the schools that accept vouchers are church-based. Few others can afford to make up the difference between the low voucher payment and what it actually costs to educate each pupil. Charmain Thomas admits that religion played little part in her choice of a school.

CT- If you could teach my child the fundaments to make it in this world and she can go to college and she can make it in college, hey. You could be atheist for all I care.

KS- And therein lies the heart of the controversy behind the troubled voucher program. The majority opinion in last week's Circuit Court of Appeals ruling said the program is unconstitutional, because it allows public tax dollars to be spent on parochial schools. Mike Billirakus is president of the Ohio Education Association, one of the groups that brought the original lawsuit against the voucher program. He says government funding for religion has always been the crux of their opposition to vouchers.

But David Zanotti disagrees. Zanotti heads the Cleveland School Choice Committee, which supports the voucher system. He believes money - and not politics - is the real issue.

David Zanotti- The other side basically on this case continues to wrap themselves up in the First Amendment, but their real arguments are about money. They're not that concerned about the separation of Church and State here, they know there's no religion being established, no converts being made. They're upset because they feel that money is leaving control of the public school system.

Richard De Colibus- The more money you fund out there, the less that, obviously, is available to the public schools, the less will there is among the public to fix the public schools, because there's fewer of their children in there.

KS- Richard De Colibus is president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. But while he is quick to point out the cost to public schools, De Colibus also points a finger at the performance of voucher schools.

RD- I also don't think everybody's looking at what should be the most important item is, are these kids actually doing better in these schools?

KS- De Colibus says performance data from Catholic schools shows children there did as well as but no better than those in public schools. He says other private schools did much worse. Ohio's Attorney General Betty Montgomery admits that the record on voucher school performance has been less than sterling. Nonetheless, she says the state plans to appeal the latest federal court decision against the voucher program, possibly as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. Montgomery maintains that the state's pilot voucher program is constitutional, because parents - and not government - decide who will get the voucher dollars. She says the voucher experiment was created to help correct the disparities between rich and poor districts -- disparities Ohio is currently under a state supreme court mandate to correct.

Betty Montgomery- I think the broad connection - if there's a connection at all - is an attempt to raise the standard of, academic standard throughout the state by interjecting healthy competition. If it turns out that they are achieving at the same level that they are in their - quote - failed system, then we know that vouchers was not the appropriate response. The experiment in that regard probably is considered a failure.

KS- Failure or not, the Cleveland school voucher issue is just the latest in a 50-year effort to provide choice in public education. Constitutional law professor Abner Greene at the Fordham School of Law in New York City says there's been a recent trend in the Supreme Court to favor more public funding of private education. He says if the court does pick up the case, he doesn't believe the ruling will signal a sea change in public education funding.

Abner Greene- I guess I would make a prediction here that I think that Justice OÕConner will try to find a way to either uphold this program or if sheÕs going to strike it down, to do it on narrow grounds and to provide some guidelines for how states and municipalities might re-write their laws.

KS- In the meantime, Cleveland's school voucher program isn't about to disappear. Ohio's Attorney General says as long as the issue remains in the courts, the voucher program will remain open. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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