Pennsylvania governor to introduce vouchers in education plan

Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Pennsylvania's governor and Arizona's legislators, fed up with failing public schools, believe kids should go private — with taxpayer funds.

At a news conference last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said his administration was preparing an “academic recovery” plan that would give public school students in Philadelphia and six other state school districts a chance to attend private schools, including religious ones.

Gretchen Toner, deputy press secretary for Ridge, said that the governor's education plan had not been completed, but that it did contain a vital voucher element.

Ridge, a Republican, said the vouchers would be worth thousands of dollars and would be available to students in districts with poorly operating public schools.

“Every Pennsylvania student needs a quality education,” Ridge said in a prepared statement. “Tragically, for whatever reasons, a handful of Pennsylvania schools clearly aren't able to meet the need.”

Under the plan, a state school assessment agency would determine and list which districts were failing. Ridge said students in those districts would be eligible for a voucher “to help pay tuition at the school of their choice — public, private or parochial.”

Ridge said the voucher “would consist of the state's per-pupil funding in that district – likely to be between $2,000 and $4,000 per student.”

Larry Frankel, executive director of the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said any plan that used tax dollars to fund education at private religious schools would be challenged as a church-state violation.

Besides subverting the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Frankel said, such a program would violate a clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution that bars taxes raised for public education to “be appropriated or used for the support of any sectarian school.”

Meanwhile, the Arizona House of Representatives yesterday narrowly approved a “Parental Choice Grant Program,” which “would allow pupils from low income families to attend private schools at no charge.” According to the bill, once a student was accepted to private school, including religious ones, the state would send a check to the student's parents. They would then would “endorse the grant to the private school.”

Upon passage in the House, state Rep. Barbara Leff lauded the measure as victory for poor students stuck in failing public schools.

State Rep. Tom Horne, however, claimed the voucher plan likely would be declared unconstitutional by the courts. Horne said the First Amendment's establishment clause as well as the Arizona Constitution would be violated by enactment of the plan.

Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, echoed Horne's concerns about the constitutionality of the voucher plan.

“More than 80 percent of Arizona's private schools are religious,” Eisenberg said. Although she said lawmakers were not purposefully trying to fund sectarian education, she claimed “it is not the intent of the Arizona Legislature to not support religious education.”

Eisenberg added that her group would “strongly consider a court challenge if the bill is enacted.”

The Arizona Republic reported that this was the sixth consecutive year that the Arizona Legislature has debated a voucher plan. In each previous year, voucher proposals were narrowly defeated in either the House or the Senate. The Senate must now consider the voucher plan. Eisenberg said it was not clear yet whether enough votes existed in the Senate to approve the measure.

Legislatures nationwide clearly have become emboldened by recent cases that have supported voucher plans, Eisenberg said. Those cases were the Wisconsin Supreme Court's 1998 ruling in Jackson v. Benson and the Arizona's high court ruling in January in Kotterman v. Killian.

In Benson, the Wisconsin high court upheld a Milwaukee voucher plan, concluding that the use of government funds in sectarian schools did not violate the state or federal constitutions. In Kotterman, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a state tax credit for citizens who donate money to private school scholarship funds, including religious ones, did not subvert the separation of church and state.

“I think Arizona is probably going to be the first state to completely deconstruct public education as we know it with a massive transfer of public funds to private and religious and charter schools,” Eisenberg said.