WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court Wednesday took up the question of state vouchers that pay for children to attend church-related schools -- not to decide whether this is good education policy, but to rule on whether this use of tax money violates the Constitution's ban on "an establishment of religion."
At least five justices -- including, notably, Sandra Day O'Connor -- sounded during the argument as though they were leaning toward the pro-voucher side.
A sixth, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, commented that the Catholic schools in Cleveland appeared to offer a higher quality of education than the public schools. Were he a parent there, Breyer said, he might send his children to those schools, even though he is Jewish.
If the court's conservative majority holds together on the issue, a ruling upholding vouchers would provide a major boost for the "school choice" movement. It would encourage states to experiment with statewide subsidies for private and parochial schools. And it could clear up legal doubts about President Bush's "faith-based initiative," a proposal to fund more public social-service programs through religious charities.
Since 1995, Ohio has offered Cleveland parents vouchers, or scholarships, of $2,500 per child per year if they choose to send their children to private or parochial schools.
Supporters say this program gives disadvantaged children a chance to escape Cleveland's failing public schools. Critics say it mostly subsidizes parents who were already sending their children to parochial schools.
A federal appeals court had declared the program unconstitutional because it had "the impermissible effect" of promoting religion.
But from the opening moments of Wednesday's argument, O'Connor seized on the fact that Cleveland's parents can choose from an array of public schools. Rather than being restricted to the public school closest to their home, parents can choose from magnet schools and independently run charter schools.
"There are a whole range of options available," O'Connor said. "Why should we not look at all the options open to the parents?" she asked a lawyer for the National Education Association, the teachers' union that has led the legal attack on vouchers.
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