Advocates of school vouchers, one of the nation’s most contentious education issues, were dealt a legal setback Wednesday when a Wisconsin state judge struck down a plan to give poor students there public money to pay tuition at private, religious schools.
In the first court decision on the legal merits of the Wisconsin program, Judge Paul Higginbotham ruled that the state cannot expand its school-voucher experiment to include religious schools because doing so would clearly violate its constitution.
Many lawmakers and educators nationwide have been following the Wisconsin case closely because in recent years vouchers have emerged as one of the more provocative approaches to education reform - hailed by some as a bold new way to give poor families more choices in schooling, denounced by others as a step that will ruin public schools.
The Wisconsin plan, which is limited to poor families who live in Milwaukee, is one of only two voucher programs in the nation. Cleveland began a similar program, which includes religious schools, for 2,000 low-income students last fall. A challenge to it in an Ohio state court last summer failed, but it is being appealed.
Wednesday’s voucher ruling in Wisconsin is not the last step in that state’s unfolding legal battle, either. The case is widely expected to reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which deadlocked on the issue about 18 months ago and sent it back to a state court. Nevertheless, voucher opponents said that Judge Higginbotham’s decision was an important sign that their argument against expanding the program to religious schools is legally compelling.
“It’s a strong decision,” said Peter Koneazny, the legal director of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He is saying that the language about prohibiting this in the state constitution is specific, and pretty hard to get around.”
But advocates, who are appealing the decision, said the judge’s stance was not a serious defeat. “We expected this, and we’re ready to get on to the appeals process,” said Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C., group lending legal assistance to school-voucher cases.”I certainly don’t think this will slow down momentum for vouchers nationwide.”
Legal debate on using publicly funded tuition vouchers for religious schools centers largely on constitutional questions about the separation of church and state.