The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Cleveland program that allows public money to be used to send kids to private schools, including religious schools.
The 5-4 ruling, which overturned a lower court ruling, is seen as a victory for "school voucher" programs that have been established in some parts of the country with the goal of providing more options to kids who would otherwise be sent to under-performing public schools.
Such programs have been hailed by President Bush, who included a proposed school voucher program in his 2003 budget, and are often touted by political conservatives.
The president praised the ruling today.
"This landmark ruling is a victory for parents and children throughout America," Bush said. "By upholding the constitutionality of Cleveland's school choice program, the Supreme Court has offered the hope of an excellent education to parents and children throughout our country. This decision clears the way for other innovative school choice programs so that no child in America will be left behind."
Critics say the programs drain money and resources from already struggling public schools.
"Vouchers are bad education policy, and we will continue to fight efforts to introduce them into public education," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Our nation's commitment to public education is longstanding, built upon the principle of open and equal access for all our children. This decision undercuts that principle and commitment."
The court ruled that the Cleveland program didn't violate the constitutional separation between church and state because, although the vouchers can be used at religious schools, it also allows nonreligious schools to participate — though few have.
"In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in his majority opinion. "It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district.
"It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious," Rehnquist said in the 21-page ruling. "The program is therefore a program of true private choice."
Joining Rehnquist were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Justice David H. Souter, who dissented along with Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, said the Cleveland program goes too far toward state sponsorship of religion.
"There is, in any case, no way to interpret the 96.6 percent of current voucher money going to religious schools as reflecting a free and genuine choice by the families that apply for vouchers," Souter wrote.
The Cleveland program pays stipends of up to $2,250 per year to nearly 4,500 mostly poor students so they can attend private schools. A large majority of the Cleveland recipients use the money to attend Catholic schools, and all but a handful attend religious schools.
School voucher programs exist in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida.
Richard Decolibus, president of the Cleveland teachers' union, blamed the anti-voucher side's legal team for losing the case, and said the decision will "set a battle between religious interest and public school interest in every state capital in the nation."
"I think it will be enormously harmful and very divisive," he said. "The reality of the matter is the only place these religious schools are going to be able to get the tuition money from is by raiding the public school treasury."
Decolibus said the Cleveland schools have already lost $43 million to the voucher program over the past three years.
But Dave Zanotti of the Ohio Round Table, which supports school vouchers, welcomed the decision and said vouchers are positive.
"After several years of this experiment with the Ohio School Choice plan, there's been no damage done to the Cleveland system," Zanotti said. "Voucher schools haven't stolen the best students or caused there to be financial difficulty."
Clint Bolick, vice president of Institute for Justice, the group that fought for the voucher program, called the court's ruling "the most important education decision since Brown v. Board of Education," the 1954 landmark Supreme Court ruling aimed at ending racial segregation in public schools. He said today's decision should give other programs much needed momentum.
"This was the Super Bowl for school choice and the kids won," Bolick said. "It means that states and the federal government can now look to all educational alternatives, including private schools, to secure educational opportunities for children who desperately need them."
The decision also sparked more debate in the controversy over separation of church and state, just a day after an appeals court ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because it mentions "under God."
Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations compared opponents of school vouchers to proponents of the decision Wednesday by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"The opponents of school choice partake of the same logic as those judges who ruled the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional," Diament said. "They wish to banish religion from our public square."
But Barry Lynn, with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Supreme Court ruling is "a major defeat for the principle of church-state separation."
"In the court of the United States today, apparently it's acceptable for all taxpayers to pay for the religious indoctrination of some children," Lynn said.
Lynn told reporters the battle is not over.
"Those of us who support public schools and support real religious freedom are planning to take this battle to Congress and to every state legislature," he said. "Our goal is to see that no further voucher programs are enacted anywhere in these United States."
Darren Toms of ABC affiliate WTAM Radio in Cleveland contributed to this report.