Civil rights group battles voucher plans in various states

Friday, November 19, 1999

In its legal battle against state school-voucher initiatives, a national civil rights group is urging greater government regulation of a Wisconsin plan and seeking a judicial order barring a recently enacted Illinois tax credit.

People for the American Way, a nonprofit civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., has been at the forefront of legal challenges to voucher plans in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Maine, among others. The group argues that the voucher plans, which offer government funds to low-income parents to enable them to send their children to private schools, undermine public education and subvert the separation of church and state.

Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program against a challenge by People for the American Way and several other education and civil rights groups. The Milwaukee program was created in 1993 to grant government funds to poor students to attend private schools. The court in Jackson v. Benson ruled that the state could help students pay tuition at religious schools without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Since that ruling, however, People for the American Way has filed complaints with the state’s education chief, arguing that several Milwaukee religious schools were violating the voucher law by not choosing voucher students randomly but picking those who had religious interests. The group’s complaints are pending.

On Nov. 17, an attorney for the group testified before a Wisconsin House Education Reform Committee about the need for a new state law that would bar discrimination against voucher students at religious schools. Specifically, the attorney urged the committee to support a voucher-accountability bill that has recently been introduced by State Rep. Christine Sinicki.

“Sinicki’s bill is a step in the right direction to help ensure taxpayer dollars are not used to discriminate and ensure children are safe behind the walls of private schools,” Corey Shapiro of People for the American Way, told the committee. “Religious schools that take public money should not have the right to discriminate. If they take public money, voucher schools must play by the rules.”

In Jackson v. Benson, the Wisconsin high court said that a student’s religious preferences should never be considered in the attempt to determine if he or she qualifies for a voucher.

Shapiro told the committee, however, that his group’s study of the Milwaukee situation indicates students’ religious identity is a factor in whether they gain admission to voucher schools. The problem, he said, “highlights the need for legislation to ensure voucher schools are held accountable.”

In early November, the group also filed a lawsuit in an Illinois state court challenging the constitutionality of the state’s recently enacted tuition tax credit. The new law grants parents whose children attend private schools up to $500 in tax relief. The credit is similar to one in Arizona that People for the American Way also challenged as unconstitutional. Last January, the Supreme Court of Arizona ruled that the tax credit did not aid religious education and therefore did not violate of the state or federal constitutions.

According to the group’s complaint, the Illinois tax credit violates the separation of church and state because close to 90% of private school children in the state are attending “pervasively sectarian” schools. “This means that the vast majority of benefits of the law will be used to support instructional programs that inculcate religious beliefs and advance the religious purposes of these sectarian schools and the religious institutions that sponsor them,” the complaint states.

The Arizona Supreme Court wrote in Kotterman v. Killian that the state tax credit did not advance or promote religious education. “This court long ago rejected the strict view that in essence no public monies may be channeled through a religious organization for any purpose whatsoever without, in fact, aiding that church contrary to constitutional mandate,” the court held.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal from People for the American Way to rehear and reverse the Arizona court ruling.