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Editorials
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Sunday, June 30, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

Voucher programs
could be beneficial


THE ISSUE

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that using public money to underwrite tuition at religious schools is constitutional.


OPPONENTS of tax dollars going to religious schools have relied in the past on the constitutional separation of church and state to support their view. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that argument, legislators, educators and parents should open their minds to the idea.

By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled on Thursday that Cleveland's school-voucher program allows parents "to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious." It does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, it ruled, reversing a 1973 decision by a more liberal Supreme Court that struck down a New York tuition-assistance program.

School-voucher experiments are likely to blossom across the country's new landscape created by the court decision. Beleaguered by a heavily criticized school system, Hawaii should view them as a source of knowledge instead of a battle front.

The Cleveland program issues vouchers worth up to $2,250 each to nearly 4,000 of the city's 57,000 elementary-age public-school pupils to attend private schools, most of which are religious. Recipients are very low-income families that are unable to pay for private non-religious schools whose tuitions are much higher.

The ruling also validates various forms of public assistance to private schools in Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, Vermont and Pennsylvania. Leaders of the voucher movement plan to seek such programs in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Utah. Any such effort in Hawaii would be an uphill struggle, starting with the probable need to repeal a state constitutional prohibition against using state money "for the support or benefit" of private or religious schools.

"It's going to add legitimacy to vouchers," Terry M. Moe, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said of the Supreme Court decision, "but it's not going to change the basic power alignment, because unions are extraordinarily powerful in the politics of education, and they are dedicated to defeating vouchers everywhere."

That political reality is nowhere truer than in union-controlled Hawaii, where Karen Ginoza, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, promises continued opposition to vouchers. "The goal," she says, "really should be on how we should help all children in public schools."

Ginoza and others worry about diverting state money from public schools to private ones. Of course, voucher programs also reduce enrollment in public schools and, logically, the number of teachers -- union members -- required at them. That is Ginoza's bottom line.

"School vouchers are not a cure-all to education in America, and certainly it is one of many alternatives that can and should be looked at to try to improve schooling for our children," says Val Iwashita, headmaster at Iolani School, an Episcopal institution.



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