Pennsylvania school district approves voucher plan

Friday, March 20, 1998

A public school board in Pennsylvania has approved the state's only voucher program providing public funds for private schools.

The Southeast Delco school board voted 7-0 Wednesday to implement a plan that would pay parents 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 one through eight, and $1,000 for each child in grades nine-12. Funds would be available to all students–including those already attending private schools–in the district.

School officials said the voucher program would cost the district about $1.2 million next year if it were implemented.

Pennsylvania's governor issued a statement praising the action last night following the school board's decision.

“I applaud the Southeast Delco school board for taking this ambitious and important step to give parents more control over their children's education. … Simply put, this plan … affirms the belief that parents–not government–know what's best for their kids,” said Gov. Tom Ridge.

No state has yet successfully administered a voucher program. Federal and state courts have consistently held that parochial school voucher programs run afoul of the First Amendment's separation of church and state principle by providing direct government support for religion.

Two major programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee are clouded in uncertainty due to ongoing court challenges based on the First Amendment. Last year, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that the Cleveland program violates the separation of church and state by providing direct government funding to religious institutions. That decision has now been appealed to the state's high court.

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

Both voucher programs have been challenged by the People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil rights organization. That organization has also put the Southeast Delco school board on notice of possible legal action if its voucher plan is implemented.

Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director of People for the American Way, said that “efforts are under way to contact people in the community who don't want money used in such a foolish and unconstitutional way.”

Schaeffer said the program not only subverts the First Amendment but also the state's constitution. Article 3 of the Pennsylvania constitution states that no money raised for support of public schools shall be appropriated to or used for sectarian schools.

“The action the school board took is shameful,” Schaeffer said. “What the school board is intending to do is turn over public money to people already affluent enough to send their children to private schools. The Supreme Court has already concluded that the Establishment clause prevents public funds from being used to support private schools.”

Board President Mary Carol Flemming says she is not moved by the threats of legal action. “I'm prepared to go to the United States Supreme Court with this.”

Colby May, of the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and educational religious liberty group, said that voucher programs “are the only way to ensure that students can achieve an excellent education.

“Public schools, particularly in less affluent areas, are not excellent schools,” said May, director for the office of government affairs at the ACLJ. “Voucher programs empower parents and families with the tools to make sure their children will be competitive in a complex world.”

May also criticized opponents of voucher programs for not “grappling with the fact that if voucher programs exclude religious schools, then you have some serious discrimination problems.

“A government voucher program that would provide funds for parents and students to attend only secular private schools and not sectarian ones would not only violate the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of association but also the equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment,” May said.