The Supreme Court and School Vouchers

  • Voucher programs allow parents to spend state money to send their children to private schools, including religious private schools
  • 1996 voucher program in Cleveland led to lawsuit over vouchers and religious freedom heard by Supreme Court in 2002
  • Political debate over vouchers mostly did not focus on questions of religious freedom
  • But religious issues were part of the debate; opponents of vouchers especially argued that the program would allow state funding of religious indoctrination

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of Cleveland's school voucher program. Beginning in 1996, the Cleveland public school district had made vouchers, or "scholarships," available to about 2000 students annually to help pay their tuition in private schools. Most voucher recipients came from low-income households with children who had attended public schools in the past. The vast majority had used their vouchers to transfer to religious schools. The program had been introduced to the public as an experiment aimed at increasing the educational options for poor children attending Cleveland’s underachieving schools, but it quickly came under attack for being a potential threat—not a remedy—to Cleveland’s struggling school system. Moreover, critics charged, the program ran roughshod over the separation of church and state; public money was being funneled to church-affiliated schools teaching specific religious doctrines.

Interest in the case extended far beyond Cleveland. In virtually every state, parents of private school students and some educational reformers had rallied to promote vouchers. And a handful of other states had already implemented various forms of state assistance to private school parents. A few experimented with vouchers; others offered parents tax deductions or credits for the expenses incurred in sending their children to private schools, both religious and secular. The Cleveland case, however, was the first time that a voucher program had been considered by the Court, and the implications for the future of this movement were huge.

While the question before the Court in 2002 was whether Cleveland’s voucher program violated the establishment clause of the Constitution, the debate surrounding vouchers has ranged far beyond its First Amendment implications. Supporters of vouchers argue that they provide much needed assistance to parents seeking alternatives to underperforming public school systems. Low-income students, in particular, need vouchers so that they can have access to the educational choices more affluent families already enjoy. Supporters also argue that vouchers will introduce a more competitive educational market, encouraging all schools—both public and private—to innovate and improve.

But voucher opponents counter that vouchers will only make private education more affordable to middle- and upper-income families. The vouchers that have been proposed ($2250 annually in Cleveland, for example) are not large enough to cover all tuition and expenses, and therefore poorer children still will be unable to afford private schools. In addition, the increased flight of wealthier students to private schools will rob the public system of crucial support from upper- and middle-class families. Public schools will become isolated institutions serving only the poor and politically impotent.

For the most part, the church-state question has been lost in this policy discussion. Voucher supporters, in particular, tend to deemphasize it. Recognizing that the separation of church and state is a fundamental tenet within American ideology, they tend to talk more about choice—a less contentious American value. And in supporting vouchers, they usually talk more about academic standards, school safety, and classroom discipline than about religious instruction. In fact, the religious courses taught in these schools' curricula are often acknowledged only through shielded references to "values-based" education. Supporters speak less about courses in scripture and doctrine than about the "normatively enriched education" that public schools are supposedly unable to provide.blank">excessive entanglement between church and state; when the state buys a religious school student a math book, the effect of the state aid is observable and limited. But when it provides tuition assistance to a religious school student, there is no way of easily ensuring that public dollars are not flowing ultimately toward the support of a religious objective.

Vouchers are not likely to go away—nor will the First Amendment. For the time being, the two have been found compatible. And this decision is consistent with the Court’s recent willingness to find more varied forms of state assistance to religious schools permissible under the First Amendment. But given the intense feeling that both sides in this debate bring to both of these issues—the education of our children and the nation's historic commitment to the separation of church and state—it is unlikely that this most recent ruling will be the last word on the subject.