Voucher Applications Up Following Supreme Court Ruling

CLEVELAND (AP) - The city of Cleveland's voucher program has seen a 10 percent increase in applications following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that the program is constitutional.

That could mean some applicants will be turned down.

"We've never had to turn anyone away in the past," said Dottie Howe, communications manager for the Ohio Department of Education. "But that might not be the case this year."

Applications began pouring in after the Supreme Court's June 27 ruling, Howe told The Plain Dealer.

The Education Department, which administers the voucher program, got 2,200 first-time applications by the July 31 deadline. The vouchers can be used for up to $2,250 of tuition at a private school.

The state is making more vouchers available this year -- 5,523 of them compared to the 4,500 vouchers awarded last year.

But about the same number of private schools as last year will accept vouchers and some of those schools may have no more spots open, Howe said. A family picking such a school will have to choose another or return the voucher.

Howe could not say how many of approximately 50 participating schools have already filled their voucher slots.

Higher-income families applying for the first time also may be out of luck.

Priority is given to families who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $36,200 for a family of four.

Last year, 72 percent of vouchers went to families in the low-income category, but there were enough to distribute to everyone who applied, Howe said.

That meant slightly more than a quarter of the families who received vouchers last year were not poor, but those families' vouchers only covered up to about $1,700 in tuition. The program has no income limits.

The Education Department is still processing applications for this school year. So far, all families who are receiving vouchers for the first time are poor. If some of them decide not to use vouchers, the subsidy will be offered to other low-income applicants first, Howe said.

Families with higher incomes who got vouchers before can keep them.

The voucher program has been the subject of debate since it began six years ago. Since almost all the schools that take vouchers are religious, opponents say the program pulls money from public schools to support religious education.

Proponents say it's needed by families who want an alternative to the Cleveland public schools but who can't afford private school tuition.

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