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Choice Challenging Schools' Status Quo

Bobby Ross Jr. Published: January 24, 1999

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?

Church/State Question

Bolstered by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, some Oklahomans want the Legislature to make a radical change.

How radical?

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.

Positive Signal?

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.

Oklahoma Debate

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.

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