Without financial help, Andrea Johnson never could afford to send her sons to True Vine Christian School.
A private scholarship program, benefiting families who qualify for food stamps, covers half her sons' tuition. Still, the northeast Oklahoma City woman struggles to pay her share: $162.50 a month.
She's willing to sacrifice for a school where Brandon, 14, and Braylon, 10, can pray, study the Bible and learn without fear of violence or gangs.
"Without a firm foundation, your kids don't stand a chance in society now, with gangs and all of that," said the mother, 32, who also has an 11-week-old baby, Andrew.
Johnson and her husband, Jerry, consider their family fortunate. For most Oklahomans in their situation, private school is not an option.
But could that soon change?
Bolstered by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, some Oklahomans want the Legislature to make a radical change.
They want the state to pay for all children's educations, regardless of whether the students attend public, private or even religious schools.
If passed by state lawmakers - and that's a big if - school vouchers would give parents tax dollars to send their children to any school.
In a nation that cherishes separation of church and state, talk of publicly funded religious schools stirs emotional debate.
"School vouchers are just another way that the religious right wing is attempting to destroy our school system," said Everett Ernst, 54, a Democrat who lives in Oklahoma City.
Indeed, the 35,000-member Oklahoma Christian Coalition is pushing for vouchers.
But Kenneth Wood, the coalition's executive director, said the only motive is fairness.
The way Wood sees it, every child already has a full-paid scholarship to receive an education.
"Right now, they can only use the scholarship at one designated school," Wood said.
In a voucher system, parents could spend the scholarship at any school they choose.
"You can't discriminate against religious institutions," Wood said. "I think that is where the real violation of the Constitution takes place.
"If you have a family of strong faith, and they want to educate their children with those same values and beliefs, they should have that ability."
What do Americans think about allowing students and parents to choose a private school at public expense?
Last fall, a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found 44 percent in favor and 50 percent opposed. The rest were undecided.
However, when the question was phrased differently, 51 percent of Americans said they favored allowing parents to send school-age children to any public, private or church-related school if the "government pays all or part of the tuition." Forty-five percent were opposed.
In November, the Supreme Court declined to hear constitutional challenges to Milwaukee's voucher program.
The nation's only other publicly funded voucher program is in Cleveland, where the Ohio Supreme Court is reviewing constitutional issues.
Both programs serve low-income, inner-city students.
The high court's refusal to review the Wisconsin case carries no legal precedent.
However, the decision "makes it even more likely that the voucher battle will be fought in the political arena," not the courtroom. So wrote Benjamin Dowling-Sendor, a North Carolina school law expert who opposes vouchers, in this month's American School Board Journal.
In light of the Wisconsin case, the voucher issue has gained political steam.
"We are very optimistic about the prospects for voucher legislation this year," said attorney Matthew Berry with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which handles school-choice cases.
"We think there are excellent opportunities to pass school choice in a number of states, most notably Florida and Pennsylvania and Texas."
The Institute for Justice defended Milwaukee's voucher program before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
State justices ruled that since the vouchers had a secular purpose - and did not advance religion as their primary effect - they were constitutional. Milwaukee's vouchers are awarded based on neutral, secular criteria and neither favor nor disfavor religion, the justices found.
The National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court let the state ruling stand.
"Many states have interpreted it as a positive signal that school choice is constitutional, that they may proceed with their efforts to give educational opportunities to low-income children," Berry said.
When the legislative session starts Feb. 1, Oklahoma lawmakers will debate school-choice issues ranging from parent-run charter schools to open transfers between public school districts.
No school-choice issue, though, inflames the public - or the politicians - like vouchers do.
Savior for the poor or welfare for the rich? Needed competition for a government monopoly or a move to destroy public education? God-given choice for all taxpayers or an unconstitutional mingling of public dollars and religious entities? So goes the debate.
It's a fight that pits the Oklahoma Christian Coalition against the Oklahoma State School Boards Association - and Republican Gov. Frank Keating against the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
"We really plan to make a big push this year," said Wood, the Oklahoma Christian Coalition director. "We really hope to see educational choices open up and expand in Oklahoma."
But the Oklahoma State School Boards Association is waging war against any form of vouchers.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of school boards statewide have passed resolutions opposing vouchers.
Vouchers would rob public schools of funding, the resolutions claim.
"We plan to do everything we can to warn the public about the dangers of vouchers," said Bob Mooneyham, the school boards association's executive director.
Oklahoma's public school funding ranks 47th among the states, Mooneyham said. "So, we don't have a large margin for error in terms of funding," he said.
While supporters say vouchers would help poor children trapped in bad schools, he fears vouchers mainly would reimburse middle-income families who already spend money on private education. That would drain funds from the public schools, he said.
"There's a lot of people that support the idea of choice," Mooneyham said. "If the parent is willing to pay that extra money (for private school), that's fine. That's the ultimate choice."
Keating said he will push - again - for limited vouchers.
His proposal would provide an escape for students in Oklahoma's worst-performing schools, he said.
The governor said he sympathizes with Oklahomans who want vouchers for everyone.
"Realistically, this Legislature in its best days might consider public school choice, and in a stretch, vouchers from the worst-performing schools," Keating said.
"So far, this Legislature has been hostile even to public school choice, much less vouchers."
To the contrary, House Speaker Loyd Benson said the Democrats support school choice. Their plan includes charter schools, which were defeated two years ago. Charter schools are autonomous public schools that free organizers from many government rules and regulations.
As for vouchers?
"If you're talking about taking public money and allowing people to use it for private education, without private schools having any obligation to take all kinds of students, I'm opposed to it," said Benson, D-Frederick.
On a national level, the voucher issue defies clear-cut conservative/liberal and Democratic/Republican divisions, as typified by the many inner-city blacks and Hispanics who support vouchers.
"As a parent who has a child in Oklahoma City schools, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that some schools in my area are substandard," said used-car dealer Johnnie Young, a black Democrat whose son, Johnnie Jr., attends Moon Middle School.
Vouchers could give inner- city children access to the quality of education offered in suburban districts and private schools, Young said.
But many conservatives, including Brandon Dutcher, a frequently quoted critic of Oklahoma public schools, oppose vouchers. They fear government money could bring government strings.
"We'd hate to see private schools corrupted and sort of lured onto the plantation by this offer of free money," said Dutcher, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs research director.
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Norman, has fought for vouchers to benefit low-income areas. But U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., told an anti-voucher rally recently that the same folks who wanted to close public schools after desegregation "have changed the name, but the game is still the same."
Last summer, President Clinton vetoed a $7 million plan to offer 2,000 District of Columbia students vouchers worth up to $3,200 each.
In the November general election, Colorado voters soundly defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have launched the nation's most far-reaching program of public support for families placing children in private or parochial schools.
In Edgewood, Texas, outside San Antonio, the privately funded Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation is providing $50 million in vouchers to poor children, hoping to prove private schools can educate students better than struggling public ones.
The Oklahoman asked readers earlier this month to share their views on tax-funded vouchers. About 300 readers responded by telephone, e-mail and letter.
Most indicated support for vouchers, but arguments were passionate on both sides.
"Some of the things that are being taught in today's public schools are an outrage, and I would never allow my children to be a part of such things," said voucher supporter Keith Frutiger of Edmond.
"Not only is the curriculum struggling, the morals, values and beliefs that are being bestowed upon our children are quite pitiful."
But Judy Sing of Macomb opposes vouchers.
"Something needs to be done, but vouchers are not the solution," Sing said. "By using them, we are admitting we supply lousy education to some.
"Why not improve the education for everybody? All kids deserve it."
Andrea Johnson contemplated sending her son Brandon to one of Oklahoma City's public middle schools.
The idea terrified her.
A former school cafeteria worker, Johnson said she knows what happens to children caught in the gang culture.
"Baggy britches and all that become a part of their lifestyles - even good kids," she said.
Private school became an option when she heard about the Oklahoma Scholarship Fund.
Last year, the private fund awarded 50 scholarships to low-income families. An additional 450 families applied for scholarships, but funds were not available.
"I get calls every day, but there's more demand than we can help," said Della Sebring, Oklahoma Scholarship Fund executive director.
Oklahoma taxpayers spent $4,306 per child in the public schools in 1996-97, the last year for which state Education Department figures are available.
But taxpayers who don't consider the public schools an option must pay again for private school tuition or to home-school their children.
Why not infuse the public school system with competition - and let students "vote with their feet," as Keating puts it?
Competition would be fine, said Wewoka High School Principal Steve Knight - if it were fair competition.
"They can shut their doors when they're full; we can't," Knight said. "If the playing field were level, I would be the first one to sign up for school vouchers. But the truth is, it is not level."
In a column titled "Who's Afraid of Competition?" Kay Floyd wrote about vouchers in this month's Oklahoma School Board Journal. Floyd is the school boards association's board development and governance director.
"Could it be that the people who actually fear competition ... are the private school operators?" she wrote.
"After all, those private schools might just go out of business because they charge tuition and must compete for students with schools that offer a free and appropriate education to every child."
Private schools must convince people public schools are failing so they can find people to pay increasing tuitions, she suggested.
But Putnam City School Board member Melinda Johnson has a different perspective on vouchers.
The Putnam City board recently voted 3-2 to oppose vouchers. But Johnson and fellow board member Sue Sullivan refused to support the anti-voucher resolution.
Johnson, who teaches in the Midwest City-Del City School District, said people accuse public educators of hiding behind inferior schools.
"I couldn't disagree with that statement more," she said.
"Bring it on, folks. You can't beat what we've got to offer."
Andrea Johnson couldn't be happier with the choice she made.
Brandon is making straight A's and is a leader on the True Vine Christian basketball team. Braylon, who has a learning disability, is progressing at a proper pace.
"My kids know more about the Bible than I do," the Paradise Baptist Church member said.
"I wanted that religious aspect to the school. If they get it while they're young, they won't forget. Even when they get older, they won't forget."Archive ID: 750030