Voucher Decision Leaves Families In Limbo

CLEVELAND (AP) - Parents with two or three children attending parochial schools on vouchers worry about the financial impact if the U.S. Supreme Court finds the state-funded program unconstitutional.

The status of more than 4,500 children in Roman Catholic schools awaits the court's decision, expected by July.

About 46 percent of students in the 32 Cleveland parochial schools that participate in the pilot program use vouchers to pay their tuition. At Blessed Sacrament School, 77 percent receive vouchers.

The program is at the center of a constitutional showdown on whether it is legal to use public money for tuition at religious schools. A ruling is expected by July.

"It's business as usual in the context of uncertainty," said Sister Carol Anne Smith, diocesan superintendent of schools. "What the parishes and schools have done is talked very realistically to their families about the need to plan financially."

Students in the program received vouchers this school year worth up to $2,250. Tuition levels at most Catholic schools in the city were below that cap, averaging about $1,391.

Danny Kelly, who works as a union laborer, pays 25 percent of tuition for his four children at St. Mel School and receives vouchers for the rest. If the program stops, he said, he would have to work longer hours.

"I think people would end up spending less time with their children and more time working," the single father told The Plain Dealer. "I would try to double up my work to keep my children in St. Mel's."

Public school is an option for some parents, but they may not consider it the best one.

Tony and Lori Kaloger's three children, ages 6, 10, and 12, attend St. Leo the Great School. They could go to William Cullen Bryant Elementary School, but plans to close that school in a few years worry Tony Kaloger.

"We're optimistic and hoping that the voucher case will pass, but there are a lot of murky waters ahead," Kaloger said.

Smith said the diocese surveyed parents using vouchers and found that while money is a serious concern, it might not be an insurmountable problem.

The overwhelming number of parents said they wanted to stay in Catholic schools, but three-quarters said they would not be able to afford the tuition without vouchers, she said. Most said they could pay something if it meant their child could continue.

All but nine of the 51 nonpublic schools that participate are church-related. By mid-December, 99 percent of the students in the program were attending religious schools.

Critics of vouchers charge the real motivation for the program was to subsidize struggling Catholic schools and said the program violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Smith said many teachers are delaying their own plans until the outcome of the court case is known.

"The wonderful news is that our teachers are staying put," Smith said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)