CLEVELAND (AP) - The Supreme Court's endorsement of school vouchers was praised Thursday by parents who have used them to put their children in religious rather than public schools.
Elaine Barclay, 35, who has two daughters attending a Baptist school under the voucher program, said the ruling was an answer to her prayers. She said the school has a better curriculum than public schools and offered religion classes, which was important to her and her husband, Kevin.
"It means everything to us," she said. "It's an excellent program. We support it. We're very, very happy. We were praying they would rule for the vouchers."
In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the Constitution allows public money to back tuition at religious schools, as long as parents can choose among a range of religious and secular schools.
Voucher programs are in place in only three places: Florida, Cleveland and Milwaukee. The court ruling addressed only the 6-year-old pilot program in inner-city Cleveland, but it is expected to protect other programs and encourage other states to consider vouchers.
Opponents say vouchers will financially cripple needy public schools.
Cleveland's Scholarship and Tutoring Program allows parents to use a tax-supported stipend of up to $2,250 to send their children to religious and other private schools in Cleveland or to public schools in adjacent districts. The program is open to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but preference is given to families with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and to students with a sibling already enrolled in the program.
The program began in 1996 with about 2,000 children. It now has about 4,400 children taking advantage of vouchers between $1,875 to $2,250 per student.
Eulanda Johnson, 37, of Cleveland was overjoyed at the ruling. "Thank you lord!" she said. "I thought I was going to have to work a second job."
Johnson's daughter, Ebony Williams, is entering sixth grade at St. Mary's Catholic school in the Collinwood neighborhood. Based on her income, Johnson pays 25 percent of the school's $2,250 annual tuition and the voucher program pays the remainder.
"Now I can be able to afford to send her to the school," Johnson said.
David Zanotti, chairman of the Ohio Roundtable's school choice committee, said, "For the kids of Cleveland, the 4th of July came early. What we have here is essentially a declaration of independence for their parents."
Opponents call vouchers a fraud meant to siphon tax money from struggling public schools.
Meryl Johnson, vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said the Supreme Court has "given permission for more money to be drained from public schools."
Johnson said private schools do not have to meet the same state standards as public schools, do not have to hire certified teachers and can turn away students for any reason. Private schools also do not have to make annual reports on graduation rates and student performance, she said.
The Rev. Steve Behr, a Lutheran minister who was one of the original plaintiffs challenging the program, said the ruling will simply speed the erosion of Cleveland's public school system.
"It has taken 200 years for this country to build up a public school system that would serve everyone," he said. "Now we are taking money out of the public school system, so next year we can just turn around and say, 'See, they are failing.'"
Behr, who now lives in San Antonio, says the ruling also raises concerns about the separation of church and state.
"You are in actuality giving a subsidy to a religious institution," he said. "They are giving it for the support of the school and its worship."
Florida in 1999 became the first state with a comprehensive voucher law, though it limits eligibility to students at struggling public schools. The law has been challenged in court, and critics said they would press forward with their case despite Thursday's ruling.
Milwaukee's program has grown to include 10,882 students in more than 100 schools in the school year just ended.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)