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School Vouchers

  • Courts have generally accepted state-funded voucher payments to allow parents to send their children to private religious schools

On vouchers, as with other forms of public aid to religious schools, the Court has recently taken a more tolerant approach. In the early 1970s, when New York and Pennsylvania introduced programs that allowed parents of low-income religious school students to deduct a portion of their tuition from their taxes, the Court declared these programs unconstitutional (Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist; Sloan v. Lemon). But in 1983, in Mueller v. Allen, the Court decided that a Minnesota tax deduction for tuition, transportation, books, and supplies was allowable because both public and private and school parents could benefit. The Court acknowledged that tuition-paying parents of religious school students reaped the largest benefits, but the Court argued—perhaps signaling a new sort of support for religious education—that "whatever unequal effect may be attributed to the statutory classification can fairly be regarded as a rough return for the benefits . . . provided to the State and all taxpayers by parents sending their children to parochial schools."9

The direction set by the Minnesota case culminated in the Court’s 2002 upholding of Cleveland's school voucher system. Introduced in 1996, the Cleveland public school district made vouchers, or "scholarships," available to about 2000 students annually to help pay their tuition in private schools. More than 90% of the voucher recipients used their vouchers to transfer to religious schools, triggering a complaint that public dollars were being funneled to religious institutions. But in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Court held that since the purpose of Cleveland’s voucher program was to advance educational opportunity, not religion, and since ultimately individual parents exercised the choice of where to spend their vouchers, the city’s program did not violate the establishment clause.

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