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Religious Freedom

Public Education Advocates Mobilize As Supreme Court Hears Religious School Voucher Case

Press Release
Nathan Richter or Tracy Duckett
PFAW Foundation
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Cleveland case could determine future of church-state separation, spawn intense legislative battles over voucher programs

As the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the high-stakes Cleveland school voucher case today, a broad coalition of education, civil rights and religious organizations rallied across the street to underscore Americans’ continued support for public education and voters’ repeated rejection of private-school voucher schemes.

"This could be one of the most far-reaching cases in recent years," said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. "It could determine the future of church-state separation in America. And it could decide whether precious resources that should be devoted to strengthening public schools in the years ahead will instead be squandered on countless voucher battles at the state and local level. Religious liberty and public education are both at stake."

PFAWF is serving as co-counsel for the Ohio citizens who have challenged the Cleveland voucher program. In Simmons-Harris v. Zelman, the Court will review a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Cleveland school voucher program is unconstitutional because it violates church-state separation. In 1973, the Supreme Court struck down a similar New York private school tuition reimbursement program, but the high court’s rightward shift in recent years makes it difficult to predict the outcome. The decision in today’s case could affect not only school vouchers, but also other efforts to funnel government dollars to pervasively religious institutions, such as so-called "charitable choice" proposals.

Neas said Religious Right organizations, right-wing foundations, and other proponents of school vouchers are prepared to launch massive efforts to try to divert public education funds into religious schools if the Supreme Court gives them a green light. Their promise is a better education for poor students. But, Neas said, reality conflicts sharply with those promises.

Recent academic studies, as well as PFAWF’s own reports on voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, document that voucher programs do not fulfill their stated purpose of providing poor students with greater educational opportunity. They are instead expensive experiments that have produced few if any documented gains for students while depriving public schools of tens of millions of dollars that could have been spent on reforms that have a proven track record, such as reduced class size in lower grades. The real choice they offer is to private schools, not voucher students. Neas noted that school vouchers have been repeatedly rejected by voters, most recently in Michigan and California, where large majorities of African American and Hispanic voters contributed to crushing defeats for voucher ballot initiatives in 2000.

Read more about the Cleveland case.

See Ralph G. Neas’ recent op-eds on vouchers from USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.