Legal hope for voucher lobby;Briefing

26th June 1998 at 01:00

Religious schools are hailing a court ruling as a victory for parental choice. Tim Cornwell reports.

Religious schools, a driving force in the American movement to bring voucher systems to public schooling, are promised a major boost from a Wisconsin court ruling.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out a legal challenge to an experimental voucher system in the city of Milwaukee, saying there was nothing to stop parents using tax-funded vouchers to pay for private church schools.

The ruling, which made headlines across the country, is likely to be contested in the US Supreme Court. But jubilant supporters say it has already set a national precedent for so-called parental choice systems, where parents pick public or private schools and get vouchers to pay all or part of the fees.

If it is upheld it could dramatically increase enrolments for parochial schools, whose speciality is often low-cost schooling for children in urban areas. Until now they have been denied government funding, directly or indirectly, because of strict interpretations of the US Constitution's separation of church and state. It has limited their outreach to the poorest parents, who cannot afford to pay the few thousand dollars in annual fees.

"We were just ecstatic," said Brother Bob Smith, principal of Messmer High School in Milwaukee, a Roman Catholic school that enrols mostly black and Hispanic children who pay $3,000 a year for tuition and books. "We just feel as an issue of justice, and also a matter of educational freedom, the ruling was the right one."

Dr Leonard DeFiore, the head of the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, representing institutions that claim 7.6 million students at all levels, hailed the ruling as "the greatest victory for parents and their children" since a landmark legal case in 1925. He said it will "turn the tide" on the school choice movement.

"School choice" has been a rallying cry for conservative reformers in the US, who seek to bring market forces into public education. Voucher systems have been proposed by local politicians from New York to California, and in some cases supporters have found private funds to launch them on a trial basis. Catholic leaders and school organisations have been among the most vocal sponsors.

But vouchers have been bitterly opposed by teachers' unions and civil rights groups.

There are nearly 28,000 private elementary and secondary schools in the US, enrolling five million children, about 10 per cent of all pupils. About 30 per cent of the schools are Catholic - and more than three-quarters are religious. The remainder are mostly special education schools, and a small number of elite independent schools.

Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program was launched in 1990 and initially, to avoid court challenge, only sent 1,500 children to private non-religious schools. Then in 1995, the city decided to enable 13,500 more students to take part with the provision that they could choose church schools. That program led to the court challenge, and can now get under way.

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