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Education Reporter

The School Choice Battle
Court rulings ignite controversial issue

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WASHINGTON, DC - The long-simmering school choice issue caught fire last November when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a state court ruling in favor of Milwaukee's voucher program. The vote was 8-1. Justice Stephen Breyer cast the lone vote to review the decision.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court held last June that Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program to provide lower income children with vouchers for private and religious schools was constitutional. The state court ruled that the program "merely adds religious schools to a range of pre-existing educational choices available to Milwaukee's children." The court rejected the argument by the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way that a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision precludes any type of aid to private and religious schools. That decision had found a New York State aid program unconstitutional because it provided tuition grants exclusively to parents of children in private and religious schools.

Voucher proponents were extremely pleased with the high court's refusal to review the Milwaukee case. Clint Bolick, the litigation director of the Institute for Justice representing several voucher families in Milwaukee, told Education Week: "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."

Efforts to advance the school choice cause are underway across the country. In several states, tuition-tax-credit plans have either been enacted or are on the table. The Virginia legislature is considering the Virginia Children's Educational Opportunity Act of 1999, which would establish nonrefundable income tax credits for tuition and other instructional fees charged by public or private schools and for certain fees and costs associated with home schooling. Tax credits "for up to 80% of the qualifying expenses incurred per child, or 100% if the taxpayer is a member of a household whose adjusted gross income does not exceed 185% of the federal poverty guideline amount," would be provided using the state's income tax infrastructure.

In January, the Arizona Supreme Court held constitutional a state income tax credit of $500 to support tuition scholarships for any student to any school (including religious schools). Arizona Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket stated in the majority opinion that the tax credit is not part of the state's "public funds," since it merely allows donors to receive a tax benefit for routing their own donations to private school tuition scholarships. The court rejected the argument of the plaintiffs (including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arizona teachers union) that "all taxpayer income could be viewed as belonging to the state because it is subject to taxation by the Legislature."

Gary Glenn, president of "School Choice YES!" in Michigan, noted in a press release: "Tax credits simply allow individuals who want to invest in education to keep more of their own private dollars in their own hands for that purpose. There's no government money involved."

Some observers caution that school choice legislation, including tax credits, can create new regulations for private and home schools. Pro-family leader Cathie Adams notes that, "in the beginning, voucher bills have few regulations, but litigation imposes more regs and teachers' unions relentlessly demand more in order to erase differences between public and private schools." She points out that the Milwaukee voucher program includes over 300 regulations.

Others fear that the school choice concept and federal vouchers will blur the distinctions between all public and private schools. Writing in The Wanderer last July, Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., president of the Von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL, asserted: "In order to receive vouchers, religious schools will have to surrender all control of their admissions and gut any doctrinal teaching integral to their curricula. The [Wisconsin] court underscored that schools are prohibited from exercising any judgment whatsoever about the students they take in (except that they may give preference to siblings)."

The Wisconsin program also requires that students be allowed to "opt out" of religious instruction, which Rockwell says "betrays an astounding ignorance of the way many religious schools teach. The very purpose of these schools is to weave religious values into the process of learning."

While school choice supporters believe that vouchers and tax credits are a positive solution to the problem of public education, the movement has caused the teacher unions to intensify their anti-choice campaigns. Reuters news service reported that an NEA spokesman claimed that nationwide school choice programs could cost public education up to $14 billion. Education Intelligence Agency president Mike Antonucci says that the NEA "is also asking its activists to submit charter school and privatization horror stories for dissemination around the country."

Antonucci warns that along with these tactics, the NEA and its affiliates "are taking the first tentative steps to prepare for a future in which vouchers are much more widespread than they are today." This includes recruiting efforts for private school teachers. Antonucci describes union-sponsored workshops that paint religious schools as ripe for aggressive union organizing efforts, citing low pay and benefits, strict administrative control, and summary dismissals for personal conduct unrelated to teaching.

Antonucci says that while collective bargaining has never been very popular in religious schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits could mean significant expansion in funding and new personnel. "This could lead to demands for higher wages and better working conditions, and a more promising environment for unionization than currently exists in those schools."

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