CLEVELAND (AP) - Less than a busload of the thousands of children who receive taxpayer-supported vouchers use them for tuition at nonreligious schools, according to a nonprofit think-tank.
Policy Matters Ohio's analysis shows that all but 25 of 4,202 Cleveland voucher students -- 99.4 percent -- attend a religious school this year. In the program's first year in 1996, about 77 percent attended religious schools.
Voucher opponents say the program takes money needed for public schools and violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 20 in a potential landmark case on whether taxpayer dollars may be used for religious school tuition.
The Cleveland program is unconstitutional because it is a public subsidy of religion, said Michael Charney, professional issues director of the Cleveland Teachers Union and a Policy Matters Ohio board member.
"These new enrollment numbers show that the only choice parents have is to attend a religious school," he said. "The court will have to decide whether this form of public aid to parochial schools shows that Ohio is neutral in creating its voucher program."
Backers of the state-operated program say voucher money goes to religious schools as a result of parent choice, not government order.
Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery has compared the program to using public money to attend religious-oriented universities, such as Notre Dame.
"This program is no different than the widely accepted Pell Grant and G.I. Bill programs under which individuals are enabled to gain access to a quality education they could not otherwise afford," Montgomery said in November.
The study's results are in line with a 2000 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down the program because most of the children attended religious schools. The program was allowed to continue during the appeals.
The voucher program provides parents of students enrolled in one of 50 participating private schools with a voucher worth up to $2,250 to be used toward tuition. Of those schools, the majority are Catholic.