More than a decade after Wisconsin authorized school choice, legal doubts still dog the Milwaukee voucher program. Yes, in ruling that publicly financed vouchers for tuition at religious schools pass constitutional muster, the state Supreme Court did reduce the level of uncertainty surrounding the program. Still, the Supreme Court in Madison is not the final word; the Supreme Court in Washington is.
That court has declined to hear the Milwaukee case. But today it will hear arguments in a voucher case from Cleveland. A ruling in favor of the Ohio program probably would make the Wisconsin program constitutionally invincible. A ruling the other way, if it’s not too broad, could still leave the Milwaukee program intact.
We find the mixing of church and state troubling in Cleveland and Milwaukee. But we like the results of vouchers. Kids attend schools they and their parents are happy with. Lower-income parents have a choice of schools, a luxury enjoyed by their better-off counterparts. And competition from private schools encourages the public schools to improve.
A couple of decades ago, the Cleveland case probably would have been a no-brainer for the high court; the voucher program clearly would have violated the Constitution. But the Rehnquist court seems to have softened the separation between religion and government. So the Cleveland case will give the court a chance to clarify exactly how firm that wall is these days.
A federal appeals court has ruled against the Cleveland program. Is it significant that the top court let stand the Wisconsin ruling in favor of vouchers but chose to intervene in an Ohio ruling that went the other way? Perhaps, though we wouldn’t wager money on that.
The Cleveland program varies in key ways from the one here. For instance, the Milwaukee vouchers are much more generous. Significantly, the appeals court cited the low amount of money provided by Cleveland’s vouchers to bolster its argument that the program was unconstitutional. So should the top court agree on that point, the Milwaukee program could still stand.
Milwaukee’s voucher program, which now serves more than 10,000 children, has done enough good that it deserves to survive any quakes set off by the Cleveland case.
On a complicated subect the editorial is clear and readable. It usefully makes the distinction that a Supreme Court ruling favorable to the Cleveland voucher system probably would make the Wisconsin system “constitutionally invincible” but that the opposite ruling might still leave the Milwaukee plan intact. We see that the paper wants the Milwaukee plan to survive because it has done at least some good. All very clear and to the point.
It is useful to note that a decade earlier the Supreme Court’s decision might have been obvious, though not so now with the Rehnquist court.
No doubt the Journal Sentinel has had many editorials on this subject and this one need not have repeated everything said before. I did wish for at least some summary sentences saying why the paper believes the system has been desirable and some answer to the question of whether the plan has diverted funds from the public schools. And in Milwaukee, where are the voucher students in school? Is it as lopsided as in Cleveland, where 99 percent of these students are in Catholic schools? May students use vouchers to transfer from one public school to another, or from one school district to another? Is it the poorest students who are using vouchers? Are they being admitted wherever they apply? Are the transferring students getting the full range of educational services — including breadth of curriculum — that are offered in the public schools? Have the public schools suffered as a result of all this?
I realize the Journal Sentinel editorials may have dealt with these questions many times before.