Wisconsin Justices Back School Choice
In the biggest legal victory yet for the nation’s school-choice movement, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that poor children in Milwaukee can attend religious schools at taxpayer expense.
The 4-2 ruling allows the expansion of a landmark program that, until now, restricted participation to nonreligious private schools.
It would allow as many as 15,000 students, about 10 times the current number, to go to religious schools or other private schools under the same tax-funded program, which gives poor families roughly $5,000 a year for each youngster.
It is the first school-choice ruling by a state’s highest court.
School-choice lawsuits are pending in Ohio, Arizona, Vermont and Maine.
The justices ruled the expanded program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because it does not promote religion or link church and state.
A student may qualify for the program “not because he or she is a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist; it is because he or she is from a poor family and is a student in the embattled Milwaukee Public Schools,” Justice Donald Steinmetz wrote.
However, dissenting justices said the program violated Wisconsin’s constitutional provision prohibiting state expenditures for religious societies or seminaries.
Milwaukee’s public schools have been under fire for low graduation rates, low test scores and low attendance.
“Now their choice is not limited to public schools based on their parents’ income,” said Zakiya Courtney of Parents for School Choice in Milwaukee.
The ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“When you give tax dollars to a parent to pass it on to a school, it’s still tax dollars flowing directly to a religious ministry,” Lynn said.
Until now, 23 private schools have participated in the program and 31 others have applied for next year, said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction.
An additional 80 schools, mostly Catholic and Lutheran, had already applied pending a favorable court ruling.
The ruling means Milwaukee public schools could lose $75 million a year in state funding to private and religious schools, Doyle said.
“We’re going to see a rapid expansion of taxing citizens to pay for religious education for children throughout this state,” said state Schools Supt. John Benson, who opposed allowing religious schools into the program.
Gov. Tommy Thompson, who had proposed the expansion, said the ruling would lead to better education for Milwaukee students.
“Religious values aren’t our problem,” he said. “Dropout rates and low test scores are.”