The Supreme Court decision Thursday allowing public funds to pay tuition at private religious schools removes the legal cloud that has hung over such controversial programs, but not the political one.
Both sides in the debate over vouchers predict that the ruling will fuel a long-range push for them and other forms of school choice around the country. However, the decision does little to quickly boost the stock of similar proposals among state lawmakers or the chances of such plans spreading widely anytime soon, even ardent fans of vouchers concede.
Many Americans need to be persuaded that vouchers are the answer to their complaints about public education. And public school teachers, through their unions, will be a powerful voice arguing against replicating the Cleveland experiment upheld by the court, experts say.
Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe, the author of a book about Americans' attitudes toward schools and vouchers, said voters know little about the issue. So, they're susceptible to arguments from teacher unions that making vouchers widely available would harm the public schools.
"It's simply a matter of power and it has very little to do with public support or the need for poor kids for more options," Moe said. So while the decision may inspire voucher proponents in many states and cities, they will face "a long, slow, hard process."
The seven-year-old Cleveland program provides vouchers of up to $2,250 for about 4,500 students, mainly from low-income families. Ninety-nine percent use them to attend religious schools.
The nation's largest voucher program is in Milwaukee, where about 11,000 students each receive vouchers worth about $5,500 for private schools, secular or parochial. Florida has two similar voucher programs -- one is just for students who attend schools the state has judged to be failing and one is for about 350,000 students who have been diagnosed with learning or physical handicaps.
Some states, including Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, give tax payers a credit or a deduction to offset the cost of private school tuition.
Bills to provide vouchers for students have been introduced in 27 states in recent years but all were defeated.
Leah Vukmir, an activist who is running for the Wisconsin state legislature, said the court decision makes vouchers more mainstream and removes any hint of illegitimacy.
"It will create an atmosphere where people will be less worried about it, absolutely," she said. "The Supreme Court's decision confirms what those involved in the movement have known all along, that giving parents options doesn't violate the Constitution."
Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group, was delighted with Thursday's ruling. "It's a great day," she said. The fight now moves to the state legislatures, she predicted, and the prospects there for victory remain uncertain.
Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, agreed that the nation's largest teacher union will rally against voucher proposals wherever they surface.
"The thing that's amazing about this is that people say this is school reform and it just makes absolutely no sense to me," he said. Rather than fleeing public schools, the majority of parents want improvements such as "having a quality teacher in every classroom, small class size, resources, high expectations and parental involvement."
Just as the political prospects for vouchers remain debatable, so do the academic benefits of such programs. Stanford University education professor Martin Carnoy said new data shows that privately funded voucher programs in Washington, D.C., Dayton, Ohio and New York provide little benefit for most students.
In addition, expanding such programs could actually dilute any positive impact because parochial schools could be overwhelmed with students who are seriously behind academically, he said.
In Cleveland, studies of their impact show that students with vouchers make about the same academic progress as those who remain in public schools.
The political struggles facing vouchers have caused many school-choice advocates throughout the country to favor tax credits for private education instead. Tax breaks are given to parents and, more commonly, to corporations and individuals willing to contribute to scholarship charities. Those entangle states less directly in tuition transactions than do vouchers.
U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who promoted vouchers in his state, said he expects tax credits will be a quicker route to promoting school choice than publicly funded vouchers.
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