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Posted at 10:45 PM ET, 04/04/2011

Vouchers, vouchers everywhere

Public education is facing enough obstacles these days without another one, courtesy of the Supreme Court. But on Monday, in a 5-4 vote, the court issued a ruling that supports an Arizona program that permits public money to be used for private schools, which are mostly religious.

The court, in Winn vs. Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, voted to bar regular people from challenging government programs that use tax credits for religious activity.

School choice supporters were pleased with the decision, but civil libertarians said it will be harder for citizens to get relief from the federal courts regarding claims of violations of the Constitution’s ban on direct government aid to religion. They fear that the result will be more and more school voucher programs.

For longer than a decade, Arizona has allowed residents to send up to $500 due to the state as income tax to the Arizona scholarship program, according to the Associated Press.

The court majority said that outsiders have no stake in the program because it operates not as a direct government payment but as individual tax credits. Therefore, people not in the program have no standing to oppose it. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the case, appropriations and tax subsidies are “readily interchangeable.”

The program has received nearly $350 million from Arizona residents who otherwise would have sent that money to the state, and most of the money has gone to families sending their children to private religious schools.

Meanwhile, a voucher program in Washington D.C. that had been defunded by the last Congress may be revived over the opposition of the Obama administration. House Speaker John Boehner, who has made clear that the program is of the utmost importance to him, got the House to pass legislation last week to again fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. That happened a short time after congressmen, at a hearing, told D.C. city officials that Congress would probably cut funding for the city’s public schools if they didn’t revive the voucher program. So much for letting the District manage itself.

Meanwhile, a day after the House vote, the Indiana House passed a voucher bill, and legislators in Pennsylvania are talking about a $1 billion voucher program.

Let’s not forget about the situation in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott wants to expand to ALL students a voucher program that now allows low-income and disabled students to use public money to go to private schools. Scott has held off pushing the plan, but he hasn’t hidden his desire to institute it, even though it would wreak havoc on the ability of the state to fund a traditional public school system.

Some see as attractive programs that give public money to families to use to pay for tuition at a school of their choice, especially in communities where public schools are poor. But vouchers aren’t the answer to failing public schools. What is? Achieving funding equity in public school districts, eliminating the standardized test-based reform program, providing teachers with proper support, and providing health and social services to needy families. And, of course, removing bad teachers from the classroom.

It is wrong to use public money at schools that have no public oversight and are not required to accept all students. At a time when public school districts are being crushed by budget cuts and unfunded mandates from government, a push for vouchers now seems especially misguided.

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By  |  10:45 PM ET, 04/04/2011

 
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