Clevelands tax-based private school vouchers nixed

Cleveland's pilot voucher program granting parents tax-funded vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools is unconstitutional, the Ohio's 10th District Court of Appeals has ruled.

The vouchers violate the separation of church and state clauses in the Ohio and U.S. Constitutions, ruled Judge John Young, joined by Judges Dana Deshler and Peggy Bryant.

While supporters of public education, teachers unions and civil-liberties advocates have welcomed the decision, Jewish organizations locally and nationally have mixed reactions to the court's decision.

Started last fall, Cleveland's pilot program grants tuition vouchers of up to $2,250 each to 1,994 poor Cleveland children who attend kindergarten through third grade.

The vouchers, redeemable at the private or parochial school of the student's choice, have transplanted $5.5 million from Cleveland's 70,000-student public-school system to private and parochial schools.

Children now in the program will continue through the end of the school year. But the program's future is uncertain, even though the biennial budget for Ohio includes funding to expand the program next year to include 3,000 children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

While other voucher programs have been tested across the country, Cleveland's is the first to allow money to go to parochial schools.

Ohio already ranks first in the nation in private- and parochial-school funding, and of the 53 private schools registered in the voucher program, 80 percent are sectarian.

The high percentage of sectarian schools was just one factor in the court's decision, which overturns a previous county court ruling.

"Because the scholarship program provides direct and substantial, non-neutral government aid to sectarian schools, we hold that it has the primary effect of advancing religion in violation of the Establishment Clause," wrote Young.

"The decision," says Joan Englund, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, "underscores our country's commitment to free, secular, public education."

Her sentiments were shared by public-education supporters. Some Jewish groups, however, disagree.

"We think the Establishment Clause permits these types of programs," says Nathan Diament, director of the institution for public affairs of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America.

"The point of the entire program is to inject some energy into the American education system, and to challenge the public-education system to perform better, and earn the allegiance of parents and their children who attend school."

Agudath Israel, nationally and locally, "has always been supportive of choice in education," says Harry Browne, Cleveland president of Agudath Israel, whose national organization filed an amicus brief on behalf of those defending the pilot program.

The court's ruling comes at a time when many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, are emphasizing Jewish education. Some Jewish education leaders have been keeping an eye on the voucher case, hoping that as the program expands, vouchers could assist children attending area Jewish day schools.

"We were hopeful that the voucher program might be extended to us," says Rabbi Samuel J. Levine, educational director at Fuchs Bet Sefer Mizrachi, an area Jewish day school of approximately 300 students. "But the fact that it was ruled unconstitutional has no impact on our school."

Area Jewish day schools do not fall under the umbrella of the voucher program, although Cleveland's five day schools receive state support in areas of special education, speech and hearing, and psychological services.

But leaders in the Jewish community have also expressed hesitation — at least mixed feelings — over the voucher program, because of the potential implications for public education.

The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland has traditionally taken a stance against Cleveland's voucher program for a number of reasons, including issues surrounding the separation of church and state. But it also plans on re-examining the voucher issue, because the local Jews community is divided over vouchers.

The Federation's stance resembles that of the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs (formally NJCRAC), which in the past has opposed voucher initiatives. But this past February, the JCPA undertook a one-year re-evaluation of its stance, according to the group's chair, Michael Newmark.

In the meantime, "I welcome the court's decision," says Newmark. "I think it is correct."

Ohio officials say they will appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court. The state, according to Thomas Needles, executive assistant of the governor, also will file for a stay, which, if granted, allows for the voucher program to continue until the issue is fully resolved.

People on both sides of the debate predict that the fate of Cleveland's voucher program — as well as others across the country — will eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.