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A Challenge to the School Voucher System:  Survival of Program in Doubt

Friday, August 25, 2000 at 3:36 PM

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All this week, as summer winds down and children begin to return to school, we're looking at various issues at the root of disagreement and discord in our education system. Among those is Cleveland's controversial school voucher program, designed to give parents an alternative to sending their child to a public school they feel doesn't meet their educational needs. The pilot program is heading into its fourth year, but its survival is in question. A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of vouchers is now in a federal appeals court. 90.3's Bill Rice reports.

Bill Rice- Tony and Lori Kaloger say they were worried a year ago when a federal court judge granted an injunction suspending Cleveland’s experimental school vouchers program. Their two children attended St. Leo’s, a private catholic school in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood. Under the voucher program the Kalogers received money directly from the city’s education budget, which they could then use to send their kids to St. Leo’s or any other participating school - religious or secular, public or private. Without their vouchers, Tony Kaloger says, he and Lori would have had to spend an additional $4,500 to educate their kids at St. Leo’s, a school they like and trust.

Tony Kaloger- For us it’s been a great experience, our kids have done very well at St. Leo’s. It was kind of frustrating when Judge Solomon issued his ruling just before the start of school. But St. Leo’s was very helpful in helping us stay informed and has been very supportive.

BR- Judge Solomon Oliver’s injunction was ultimately reversed, but the lawsuit challenging the voucher program’s constitutionality is still pending. A coalition of public education advocates argues the program uses public funds to promote religion, violating the U.S. Constitution.

Mike Billirakas- We still believe in separation of church and state and don’t feel that public money should be going to religious schools, as they promote a particular religion.

BR- Mike Billirakus is president of the Ohio Education Association, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Other co-plaintiffs include the National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties union of Ohio. Billirakas says while they’re challenging vouchers on religious grounds, his group is opposed to vouchers going to any private school - faith based or not.

MB- Because that’s taking money away from the public schools that need it desperately, and this is in fact happening in Cleveland in sending it to private entities, and especially for-profit entities in some cases.

Dave Zanotti- I know that’s the way the argument is presented, but I have a hard time with it logically.

BR- David Zanotti heads the Cleveland School Choice Committee, a non profit group that supports school vouchers and other methods of providing parents educational options.

DZ- The money would be taken away if the child were staying in that school and funding disappeared and the school was obligated to teach the child without the funding. But the fact is the student leaves the system, goes to another system. So the burden of educating that child is removed, and the money follows the child.

BR- Zanotti laments the fact that public schools aren’t participating in the voucher program. Of the 52 schools that do accept vouchers, all are private and the majority - including St. Leo’s, are faith based. Zanotti says one reason public schools shy away is that the vouchers are only worth $2,250 - far less than the state per child cost of educating kids. Another reason, he suspects, is political.

DZ- There’s no queston whatsoever from talking to superintendents and to teachers that they’re not about to participate in this program and grant it any sense of sanction because the NEA and the AFT of course are adamantly opposed to this so they don’t want to participate.

BR- For Tony and Lori Kaloger, whose two older kids start school at St. Leo’s next week, the issue is clear-cut: They feel it’s not the government’s place to dictate where they send their children to school. Tony says he likes the concept of consumer choice in education.

TK- For me it creates an environment for better schools because competition will be there, the parents will be able to decide which school best fits their needs.

BR- Lori Kaloger agrees, and says she supports not only the voucher program but any system that promotes choice. And that includes charter schools - publicly funded schools that are privately run - free of much of the regulation that govern standard public schools. Their youngest son will attend a local charter school this fall. Kaloger says both the voucher program and charter schools are very popular among other parents she talks to.

Lori Kaloger- People are tired of the mainstream public schools, they want a choice. In fact that charter school is packed, there’s a waiting list even to get in there. And even many of these private school, there’s a waiting list to get in there. People want out, and they want a choice.

BR- A decision as to whether the Cleveland voucher program is constitutional is pending in the U.S. circuit court of appeals in Cincinatti. The case could ultimately wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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