Information about notable school vouchers in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.
Under Florida's private school voucher program, the first statewide voucher plan passed in the United States, every public school received a grade, from A to F, based on standardized test scores. Schools that scored well got extra money from the state, but students in schools that received an F were eligible for a $4000 voucher at any private school that accepted them, including religious schools. Public schools lost the funds that students took to private schools. State Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. struck down school this voucher program on March 14, 2000, concluding that, "By providing state funds for some students to obtain a K-12 education through private schools as an alternative to the high quality education available through the system of free public schools, the legislature has violated the mandate of the Florida Constitution, adopted by the electorate of this state."
The Milwaukee voucher program, one of the oldest and largest in the country, is also among the most explicit in allowing state money to be used specifically for religious schools. The program provides vouchers for up to $5000 - the estimated cost of educating a child for one year in the public schools - to as many as 15,000 of the district's 100,000 students, generally those who are financially poorest students. Although a majority of the schools for which the grant money is used are parochial, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Milwaukee program. In response, voucher opponents brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the high court to declare the program unconstitutional and overrule the Wisconsin State Court decision. In November, 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case and sidestepped, for the time, the national debate over whether taxpayer-financed vouchers may be used to send children to parochial schools. A 2008 report on this school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas found no comparative difference between the test scores of children in the program and other public school children. The complete report can be viewed here.
More than 4,000 students from kindergarten through sixth grade have signed up for as much as $2500 in tuition vouchers for private schools in Cleveland's program. Of the 53 schools involved in the program, 80% are religious institutions. The Cleveland voucher program was ruled unconstitutional by both state and federal courts, including the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in December of 2000, finding that "there is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions." However, in one of its most significant decisions in the recent past concerning religion in the public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings and found the program constitutional in 2002.
In the case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Court ruled that because the voucher money went to parents who then made independent and private decisions as to which school to spend it on, the program only aided religious schools indirectly and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. For more information about case and the criteria established by the Court to determine the constitutionality of this voucher program, read the case analysis from Americans United for Separation of Church and State here.
In March, 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down two school voucher programs created in 2006 to aid children with disabilities and children in foster families. In the case, Cain v. Horne, the court ruled unanimously that the voucher programs were a violation of the Arizona Constitution because the programs funded private schools, including parochial schools, with taxpayer funds.
The most recent, most contentious, and still ongoing school voucher battle is being waged in the U.S. Congress. In 2003, Congress established the only federally-funded school vouchers program in the country, the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), as a five-year pilot program. The OSP targeted students in "schools in need of improvement" and enabled those who applied to the program and won in a lottery system to use vouchers to opt out of their public schools.
This program raises a number of practical and constitutional concerns. Studies from the Government Accounting Office found that many private schools in the OSP failed to meet acceptable standards in crucial areas: teachers in core subjects lacked bachelor's degrees, schools did not receive proper accreditation, required annual reports on curricula and school facilities were never submitted. Additionally, the private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, although they receive public funds.
The OSP has also failed to substantially improve the education of the students receiving the vouchers. Studies conducted annually by the Department of Education, the latest released in April, 2009, have consistently found that the students this program was created to help showed "no statistically significant impact on math achievement" or in reading after attending private schools.
In 2008 when the program was slated to expire, a compromise was reached between Senators who wanted the program to cease as planned and those who sought to reauthorize the program: one additional year of funding was allocated to give the District and the parents time to prepare for the program's end, with the understanding that no additional funding would be allocated barring complete authorization of a D.C. vouchers program.
In 2009, debate over the future of the children currently in the program prompted President Obama to intervene and promise to extend the program to prevent uprooting the children in the OSP from the schools they were currently in, with the understanding that no additional children would be accepted to the program. Congress, led by voucher proponent and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), held a hearing on the program in May, 2009 on whether the entire program should be reauthorized. It is likely that a bill to extend the program will be introduced by the end of the summer 2009.