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High Court Rejects Challenge to Wisconsin's School Voucher Law

By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge Monday to a Wisconsin law that gives low-income parents up to $5,000 per year for private or parochial schooling in Milwaukee, a move likely to encourage "school choice" efforts in several other states.

On an 81 vote, the justices dismissed appeals from the nation's teachers unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that such direct state aid for religious schools violates the Constitution's separation of church and state.

Over the past decade, the high court has edged away from the doctrine of strict separation. In a series of rulings, it has allowed some religious activities in public schools and some public funding to go to parochial schools.

For example, the court has said students can meet for Bible study on public school campuses, while federally funded tutors can teach in parochial schools.

At each step, however, the court has moved cautiously, often ruling by narrow 54 margins. Even the court's conservatives have insisted the key choices be made by students and parents - not by public officials - and that the state's aid not be seen as endorsing a particular religion.

The Wisconsin case had emerged as the clearest test of whether the court would allow large amounts of public money to be funneled into parochial schools.

The answer announced Monday amounts to a qualified "yes."

In a one-line order, the justices turned down the appeals from those who believe the program is blatantly unconstitutional. The justices did so, however, without issuing a written ruling.

This has the effect of clearing the Wisconsin voucher program to continue and of upholding a state court ruling in its favor. But it does not set a binding national precedent that must be followed by lower courts.

As a result, advocates on both sides were free to interpret the significance of the move.

Some proponents of vouchers said the court had given a "green light" to their use nationwide. Some critics of the idea said the court's action was disappointing, but ultimately meaningless.