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YOUNGSTOWN Local educators debate voucher decision



Published: Fri, June 28, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Supreme Court ruling could renew efforts to expand vouchers to other states and communities, including possibly Youngstown.

By RON COLE

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Thursday was a great day for Michael Skube.

It was a downer for Ben McGee.

Skube, superintendent of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown schools, was elated over the Supreme Court's ruling that school vouchers are constitutional.

"It's a great day for parents," he said.

McGee, superintendent of the city public schools, said the ruling could further erode students, money and confidence in the public schools.

"The Constitution tends to shrink on some issues and expand well beyond perhaps its intended limit on others," McGee said.

Ruling

By a 5-4 margin, the court ruled that a 6-year-old program in Cleveland that provides tax dollars to parents to send their children to private, religious schools meets constitutional muster.

About 4,000 of Cleveland's 57,000 elementary-age pupils get $2,250 to help pay tuition at any of 51 participating schools, all but nine of which are religious. Most are Catholic.

Skube, who leads the 13,700-pupil, six-county Youngstown diocesan schools, said the ruling gives parents, especially those of limited income, a choice of where they can school their children.

"It's a very pro-parent decision," said Skube, who became diocesan superintendent earlier this month.

McGee said he strongly disagrees with the ruling.

"The constitution charges states with the responsibility for providing free and appropriate education for all children, and I don't think that vouchers actually do that," he said.

"I think vouchers sort and select, and when that happens I think you move away from the intent of the constitutional language on who's responsible for educating children."

Effect

Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida are the only tax-supported voucher programs in the nation. Tuesday's ruling is expected to spark renewed efforts to expand the programs to other states and communities, including possibly Youngstown.

Vouchers in Youngstown could have the same effect on the public schools as charter schools, McGee added. Youngstown has five privately operated, publicly funded charter schools enrolling nearly 1,600 pupils, most of whom previously attended the city public schools.

"I don't think anybody can predict what's going to happen and how this will eventually play itself out," said Dr. Philip Ginnetti, assistant dean of Youngstown State University's education school.

"I have concerns about what will happen with public education."

Skube said expansion of vouchers depends largely on funding from the state, which could be limited given Ohio's ongoing budget crisis.

The ruling also could open the door for discussion on other methods of school choice, such as tax credits for parents choosing to send their children to private school, Skube said.

State reaction

Gov. Bob Taft said the state should continue to evaluate the Cleveland program before considering expansion.

"While public education is the backbone of our system and, for the most part, serves our children well, we have to recognize that some parents would prefer to have alternatives when a particular school district does not deliver a quality education," the governor said.

Ohio Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman said more study is needed to determine the academic success of the Cleveland program.

"Frankly, the court's back but the jury's still out," Zelman said. "Given our focus on student achievement, Ohio's voucher program must pass two tests. The Supreme Court is back on the first test -- the voucher program is constitutional. But the jury's still out on the second test -- how well this program raises the academic performance of our students."

While the ruling makes vouchers constitutional, it doesn't mean vouchers are good public policy, said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

"Using our tax money to support religious instruction breaks a fundamental bargain that was struck when this country was founded, that American citizens cannot be forced to support a church or religion in which they do not believe," he said.

John Brandt, executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association, struck a similar tone.

"OSBA believes that public dollars should be used to support public schools, where the vast majority of Cleveland students are educated and where there is clear accountability for the funds," he said.

"Dollars given to religious schools are not accountable. There is no way to know how well they are being used or whether they are being used efficiently and effectively."

cole @vindy.com




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