Wisconsin court OKs school voucher plan – state’s supreme court approves public funds for private religious schools

Wisconsin court OKs school voucher plan – state’s supreme court approves public funds for private religious schools – Obituary

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in Madison has ruled that a publicly funded school voucher program in Milwaukee may be expanded to include private religious schools. In a 42 ruling June 10 the court said adding private religious schools to the program that had been limited to private nonreligious schools is constitutional.

The decision to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program “places on equal footing options of public and private school choice and vests power in the hands of parents to choose where to direct the funds allocated for their children’s benefit,” Justice Donald Steinmetz wrote in the majority opinion.

The Milwaukee program, in operation since 1990, provides students from low-income homes with taxpayer funds not to exceed the cost of private school tuition, which in Milwaukee averages about $9,800 per student. About 1,500 students have participated in the plan, but the court’s ruling is expected to expand that number tenfold.

Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson, noting that tax dollars have long been given to college students who attend religiously affiliated schools, praised the court ruling. “It’s only at the K-12 level that we discriminate against low-income families and restrict their ability to attend the school of their choice. Expanding this program to religious schools just makes common sense,” the governor said. Kevin J. Hasson, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, agreed. “This decision is doubly good,” Hasson said. “It is good because parochial school kids and their parents are no longer second-class citizens. It is even better because it recognizes that people of faith do not need to be quarantined from public life generally.”

However, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized the ruling as forcing taxpayers to pay for tile religious educations of others. The ruling, he said, “strikes at the heart of the First Amendment, ignores the language of the [Wisconsin] state constitution and overlooks every other court ruling on public funding of religion. Anyone concerned with church-state separation should be shocked and disappointed.” Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, called the ruling “a blow to public school systems… urgently in need of improvement. A voucher system commits the state not to changing public schools, but to abandoning them.”

In January 1997 a lower court held that including religious schools in the Milwaukee program would be unconstitutional. An appeals court later upheld that decision. Lynn said the June 10 ruling would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wisconsin is one of five states with school voucher plans being adjudicated in state courts. The others are Ohio, Arizona, Vermont and Maine.

COPYRIGHT 1998 The Christian Century Foundation

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