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All Eyes on Cleveland

02/18/02 12:00AM By Libby Sternberg

This week, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments for the first time in a voucher case that originated in Cleveland Ohio, but it's of great interest to voucher advocates everywhere.

Since 1996, Ohio has provided scholarships for low-income Cleveland parents to fund 75 to 90 percent of the cost of tuition to a private school or public school outside of a child's district. The scholarships are capped at $2,500 per student. The purpose of the program is to allow parents to seek out better educational opportunities for their children while Cleveland schools struggle to reform.

What about the kids left behind in the struggling public schools? The voucher program requires an equal number of tutorial grants to be disbursed to students remaining in Cleveland schools.

In the Cleveland case, however, opponents have raised the "separation of church and state" cry to attempt to block the program.

To bolster their case, they point out that 96 percent of the students taking advantage of the vouchers are enrolled in religious schools. Ironically, one of the reasons for this high percentage is the fact that suburban Cleveland public schools refused to participate in the program. That's right - public schools closed their doors to voucher pupils.

By the way, about half of Cleveland┐s public school teachers send their children to private schools.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right now that an organization with which I am affiliated has filed an amicus brief with the court arguing for the voucher program's continuation. But it's another amicus brief that caught my attention not too long ago and, for me, truly sums up the issue before the court. Filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, this brief takes the court through a succinct history of public education. It argues that the practice of banning public funds from primary and secondary religious schools is not constitutional in origin. After all, the courts have allowed public funds to flow to post-secondary religious institutions for years. The difference in treatment originates in a nineteenth century anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativism that sought to use the new public schools to blanche threatening papist views from new arrivals.

The Becket Fund elegantly states that they don┐t lay out the unsavory history of public schools to "score debater's points, or to construct a history of grievance," but rather to urge the court to see the Cleveland case through a "lens unclouded by anachronistic biases and shoddy history."

"Americans today," they state, "should not unwittingly reason from a premise rooted in nineteenth century anti-Catholicism. We must think these questions out afresh, with no inherited presuppositions."

I wholeheartedly agree and hope the court is able to take a fresh look at this case.

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

--Libby Sternberg is a freelance writer, former Chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.
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