Momentous Supreme Court decision allows state to subsidise deprived pupils' places at private religious schools. Stephen Phillips reports.
The US Supreme Court has cleared the way for public funding of private religious schools. The landmark decision pushes the politically explosive issue of vouchers to the top of the education agenda.
A divided Supreme Court narrowly approved a controversial programme offering deprived pupils in Cleveland, Ohio, vouchers to attend private schools. As elsewhere in the US, most of these private schools are Christian.
The verdict - billed as the most momentous legal ruling on education since the 1954 ban on segregation - has delighted conservatives, who have long argued for greater use of vouchers to force schools to compete for children.
Extending voucher programmes was a key reform proposed by President Bush - and it now has the green light. Mr Bush said: "The Supreme Court in 1954 declared that our nation cannot have two education systems: one for African-Americans and one for whites.
"Last week the court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to the school of their choice and one for those who can't. And that's just as historic."
But the decision has enraged opponents, led by teaching unions, who contend that vouchers will do nothing to help state schools.
It was bitterly disputed within the judicial panel, which passed it on a single casting vote, 5 to 4.
Chief Justice William Reinquist controversially concluded that the Ohio programme was "neutral with respect to religion"and did not violate separation of church and state mandated by the US constitution.
But dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens branded the ruling "profoundly misguided". "The scale of aid to religious schools approved is unprecedented," said another dissident, Justice David Souter. Almost all Cleveland voucher recipients use them to attend church-affiliated schools: 3,700 students currently participate, receiving up to $2,250 (pound;1,500) each.
But the Supreme Court's only black judge, Clarence Thomas, said he supported vouchers because they "pluck children from inner-city public schools that deny emancipation to urban minority students.
"While the romanticised ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children."
Just 40 per cent of Cleveland's inner-city pupils complete their schooling, Sandra Morgan of the city's school board pointed out.
The ruling does not mean vouchers will be offered immediately to all US students, but it allows states to enact laws similar to Ohio's.
Before last week's verdict, Florida and Wisconsin were the only others to offer vouchers, but the dispelling of legal uncertainty will boost efforts to introduce vouchers in at least another six states.
Still, the introduction of voucher schemes is far from assured. California and Michigan voters rejected vouchers in recent referenda. Moreover, a challenge to the Florida law by the biggest teachers' union, the National Education Association is pending.
"Vouchers are not reform," said union president Bob Chase. "If policy-makers want to act on the issues that parents care about, they will address teacher quality, class size, and resources."
Senator Edward Kennedy said that Congress must not abandon its opposition to vouchers.
"It's flat wrong to take scarce public dollars away from public schools and divert them to private schools," he said.
Since their inception in 1996, vouchers have cost Cleveland's education authority $45 million in lost revenue, said Sandra Morgan. She said: "Money follows the child wherever they go to school."