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Supreme Court lets stand Milwaukee voucher program

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court extended the life of educational vouchers in Milwaukee Nov. 9 when it refused to hear an appeal of a Wisconsin high court ruling in favor of including religious schools in the program.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the decision means the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program will continue to enable as many as 15,000 low-income children to use vouchers at religious or secular private schools, as well as public schools. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in June the program violated neither the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition of a government establishment of religion nor the state constitution.
The court’s denial of the appeal affects only Wisconsin and leaves the remainder of the country without a decision on the contentious issue of educational choice. School-choice cases are pending before state supreme courts in Arizona, Maine, Ohio and Vermont, according to the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm defending the programs in those states. The institute also defended the Milwaukee program.
The justices announced their denial of the appeal without comment.
“The families who are enjoying the benefits of this wonderful program can rest a little easier,” said Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, in a written statement. “School choice is the most promising education reform in America. By declining to review the Wisconsin ruling, the Supreme Court leaves intact the most definitive court decision to date, which solidly supports the constitutionality of school choice.”
Opponents of school choice criticized the high court’s action.
“Every day the voucher plan does more damage to the Milwaukee public schools, and the city’s taxpayers are paying the tab,” said National Education Association President Bob Chase in a written statement. “Vouchers will not ‘reform’ our public schools. They will only serve to weaken them.”
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief before the Wisconsin Supreme Court supporting the Milwaukee program. The brief, authored by the Christian Legal Society, argued the exclusion of religious schools from a voucher program for only secular private schools would constitute discrimination against religion, while inclusion of religious schools would not violate church-state separation.
The high court’s refusal of the appeal perhaps will open “the door for more people to have the option of deciding what’s best for their children without having to be forced to send their children to the public schools if they don’t feel the public schools are doing a good job,” ERLC President Richard Land said on the agency’s “For Faith and Family” radio program Nov. 10.
The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which was the SBC’s church-state representative in Washington prior to the 1990s, maintains its long-standing opposition to vouchers for religious schools as a violation of the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion.
In August, a poll conducted by the Gallup Organization found 51 percent of Americans surveyed support government-funded, educational-choice programs that include religious schools. It was the first time in the four years the poll asked the question that a majority supported the concept. The survey also found 75 percent of respondents believe private and religious schools that accept government tuition payments should be accountable to the state in the same way public schools are.
A preliminary study of a privately funded voucher program in New York showed a slight improvement in standardized test results among elementary students who transferred from public schools to religious and secular private schools, it was announced in October. The study by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found improvements among fourth and fifth graders using vouchers of four percentiles in reading and six percentiles in math, according to The New York Times. The differences were smaller for second and third graders.
In May, President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have provided vouchers for low-income children in the District of Columbia to attend private schools, including religious ones.
The Milwaukee program permitted vouchers for only secular private schools when it was inaugurated in 1990. At the urging of Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin legislature expanded the program to include religious schools in 1995.