Parents challenge Pennsylvania school board’s voucher plan

Thursday, April 16, 1998

Parents in a Pennsylvania school district filed a federal lawsuit today against a district plan that would provide state tax dollars for students to attend religious schools.

A group of Southeast Delco, Pa., parents filed the lawsuit in state court claiming the voucher program subverts the state's constitution, which prevents public funds from being used to support religious schools. The parents' suit also maintains that the Southeast Delco School Board does not have authority to implement the voucher program without state approval.

The parents are represented by People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Pennsylvania.

Last month the Delaware County school board unanimously approved the plan, in which the school district would take money out of its state-supported budget to give to parents wishing to send their children to private and parochial schools.

The voucher plan would provide $250 for each child attending a private kindergarten, $500 for each child in grades 1-8, and $1,000 for each child in grades 9-12.

Unlike voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, funds would be available to all students — including those already attending private schools — in the district. The school board estimated the program would cost $1.2 million.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, called the Southeast Delco voucher program a much more egregious violation of First Amendment church-state separation than other voucher plans proposed to help needy parents stuck in poor public schools.

“Proponents of voucher schemes say they want to help inner-city kids,” Mincberg said. “This program won't spend a dime on kids who are in the county's public schools that are in desperate need of more money. Instead this plan will take more money from the public school budgets and funnel it into private schools.”

The Institute for Justice, a D.C.-based libertarian legal firm that is representing voucher plans in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Maine, will defend Southeast Delco's voucher program.

“Southeast Delco is taking this commonsense approach to avoid the educational breakdown and financial costs that come from over-crowding,” said Clint Bolick, the group's legal director.

“By affording parents the option to select the school — public, private or parochial — that best meets their children's needs, the school district takes pressure off the system and may well avoid the huge costs of constructing new school buildings,” Bolick said.

The voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee are clouded in uncertainty because of legal challenges based on the First Amendment's separation of church and state principle. Last year the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that the Cleveland program violated the separation of church and state by providing direct government funding to religious institutions.

The Milwaukee program, which is similar to Cleveland's, has likewise been invalidated by a state court ruling that said it subverted church-state separation.

When the Delaware County school board approved the program, its president defended it as a fiscally conservative plan that would not be susceptible to a legal challenge.

“I'm prepared to go to the United States Supreme Court with this,” said Mary Carol Flemming.

Calls to the Delco superintendent's office and the school board regarding today's legal action were not returned.