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Anxious parents await hearing on school vouchers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND - Eulanda E. Johnson graduated from one of the city's public high schools, and she is employed by the district to prepare meals for its cafeterias. But she didn't hesitate to transfer her daughter to a Catholic elementary school when the family received a tuition voucher from the state three years ago.

More agonizing, Johnson says, are the choices she will face if the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Ohio voucher program promotes religious education, a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Such a ruling would effectively shut down the Cleveland program and thwart similar efforts elsewhere.

"Oh Lord, I've really been trying not to think about it," Johnson said one evening last week while fifth-grader Ebony, still dressed in her navy-and-white school uniform, bounded through the family's white bungalow. "I would hate to go work a second job because there I would be taking time away from being with my daughter. But then, you think about the education - that's the most important thing."

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging the voucher program created by Ohio lawmakers six years ago to offer parents alternatives to the struggling public schools in Cleveland. Many students there were failing to meet any of the state performance standards and just a third were graduating from high school.

The case is considered one of the most important the court will hear this term because a ruling upholding vouchers would probably speed the creation of such programs in other parts of the country and could significantly alter the landscape of American education.

"I think it's a benchmark case in that it really will be viewed under a microscope by many around the country in education," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Roman Catholic schools for the Baltimore Archdiocese and an advocate of school-choice measures that provide state funding for students to attend private and parochial schools.

Across the country, educators, teachers unions, civil liberties groups and politicians of all stripes are closing watching the Ohio case. But the stakes may be highest for the parents of Cleveland schoolchildren. This school year, the state distributed tuition vouchers for 4,456 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade. The vouchers, each worth up to $2,250 and awarded through a lottery system, are given only to families living at or below the poverty level.

Johnson, a 37-year-old single mother who earns about $22,000 a year as a food-service worker, acknowledges that she has never paid much attention before to the high court. Now, she worries that the nine justices could issue a ruling that would abruptly end a program she believes has greatly improved Ebony's education.

But parents such as Doris Simmons-Harris say the voucher program should be ended. Simmons-Harris, one of the original plaintiffs in the Cleveland case, said in an interview last week that the program has served relatively few of the city's children while draining money away from the 76,000 students in the city's public schools.

Simmons-Harris, an administrative coordinator at a Cleveland children's hospital, said she had concerns soon after the Ohio legislature created the program in 1995 because she knew the city's private and parochial schools would not be an option for her son, now a high school sophomore, who has physical and learning disabilities.

The money that goes to support vouchers - Ohio spent about $7.7 million on the program last year - could be better spent improving the ailing public schools, she said.

"I go to his classrooms, I visit with his teachers, and I know he doesn't even have his own books for all his classes," said Simmons-Harris, who plans to attend this week's Supreme Court arguments. "They have to share computers. With technology the way it is today, the children need to not be having to share computers."

The question before the court will be whether the voucher program violates the First Amendment guarantee that the government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." In 2000, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Cleveland program, saying that the voucher system had an "impermissible effect of advancing religion." The program was allowed to continue while the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Maysoon Zaghari briefly used the voucher program last fall to send her 7-year-old daughter, Walaa, to private school. Zaghari, who is Muslim, said she sent Walaa to a Catholic elementary school because there were few other schools to choose from inside the city. But she said she quickly became concerned that the teachers were trying to indoctrinate her child in the Roman Catholic Church, and she moved Walaa to the nearby public school.

"A friend had her kids in Catholic school, and she told me they were good, that they were better than public schools, and I wanted that for my daughter," Zaghari said. "But they encouraged her to pray and to make the sign of the cross. I want my daughter to be comfortable, and instead, she started hating school."

The 6th Circuit noted at the time of its ruling against the voucher system that 82 percent of the private schools participating in the program were religious. More recent research shows that fewer than 1 percent of all pupils receiving tuition vouchers attend secular private schools.

In the majority opinion, the court concluded: "To approve this program would approve the actual diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education, something 'in tension' with precedents of the Supreme Court."

But in a fiery dissent that could preview the debate among a closely divided Supreme Court, Circuit Judge James L. Ryan called the majority decision a "plainly hostile attack on the religious schools in the Ohio voucher program."

In recent years, the Supreme Court has upheld state laws that allow public money to be used at religious schools for such things as library books and computers or for special-education instruction. In siding with Ohio in the high-stakes Cleveland case, the Bush administration is urging the court to also allow vouchers, which the government argues were created for a "valid secular purpose" and are administered without regard to a school's religious affiliation.

The Justice Department stated in its brief in the Cleveland case that it is not surprising or improper "that the state would choose to give the parents of students enrolled in a demonstrably failed school district the option of using aid to send their children to a private school, including a religiously affiliated school, if they so desire."

Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson will argue the government's position this week. Among the lawyers arguing against vouchers will be former New York federal Judge Marvin Frankel, 81, who has written extensively on church-state issues.

Critics of vouchers have focused on new research compiled by the nonprofit group Policy Matters Ohio, which showed that about a third of the pupils who received vouchers in the last school year were already enrolled in private or parochial schools - suggesting that many parents who have used the program would send their children to private schools regardless and not simply default to public schools.

But a 1999 study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance concluded that the voucher program should continue and be expanded.

According to the Harvard study, public school parents who used vouchers to move their children to private schools were generally more economically disadvantaged than other public school parents. The report said they also were "more likely to be 'very satisfied' with nearly every aspect of the schools they attend than parents of students in Cleveland public schools."

Eulanda Johnson counts herself among that group. She said her daughter's grades and reading skills have climbed during her three years in private school. Johnson said that she isn't Catholic but that the school's religious affiliation was the least of her worries.

"It's just a choice situation," she said last week. "That's why I don't understand why they're fighting it so hard. Parents should be able to choose which school they go to."

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