School groups engage in new battles with advocates for vouchers

School groups engage in new battles with advocates for vouchers

A new wave of conflict over school vouchers has broken out in a number of states where advocates in control of the legislative purse strings are confronting push-back from traditional public school supporters.

Last week, attorneys representing the Arizona School Boards Association and the state’s largest teachers’ union filed papers with the Arizona Supreme Court asking that a new program allowing tax dollars to pay for a parochial school be declared unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, in Green Bay, Wis., local school board members are joining with teachers and administrators in a grassroots campaign opposing plans to offer state support for vouchers in the 20,000-student district.

And in Nashville, Tenn., the two sides are gearing up for an expected showdown inside the state’s General Assembly over legislation that provides state money for vouchers expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.

Today there are 13 states along with the District of Columbia that have voucher programs, generally defined as offering families – typically low-income – tax money to pay all or part of a child’s tuition at a private school, including religious-based schools.

The largest program is in Indiana, where close to 530,000 students are eligible for state-paid tuition while, the latest program was ushered in earlier this summer by lawmakers in North Carolina.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers in 2002, the challenge in Arizona appears to be based on a similar argument – that allowing state dollars to be spent at parochial schools violates a state ban on the use of public money for religious worship or instruction.

Attorney Don Peters, who is representing the school groups in the litigation, said he believes state law is clear.

“If you read the web site for a bunch of Catholic schools, they're going to tell you that the entire curriculum is permeated with their faith,” Peters told the Arizona Daily Star.

“There's nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But it's all religious instruction.”

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker wants to broaden what is already the nation’s biggest voucher program – Milwaukee Parent Choice – which boasts nearly 25,000 students.

Earlier this year Walker proposed adding the Green Bay Public School District into the system – a plan that was later abandoned but is expected to resurface.

Last spring, the Green Bay School Board used part of a regular board meeting to consider options for resisting the governor’s voucher proposal. A check on the district’s website showed it still includes links to arguments against vouchers including how the plan will negatively impact on local property taxes.

Next up might be Iowa where a poll released earlier this month conducted by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, found 58 percent of voters support the idea of a tax credit system for donors to nonprofits that, in turn, provide private school scholarships to low-income families.

“Iowans clearly see public education and school choice as compatible ideas worth supporting to move our state forward,” Trish Wilger, executive director of Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, said in a statement. “I hope our state expands families’ access to the educational options that work best for them.”

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice – named for economist Milton Friedman, an ardent supporter of putting market forces to work in the education system – is a non-profit based in Indianapolis.

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