School Voucher Decision 'Divisive,' Teachers' Union Says

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

(2nd Add: Includes comments from President Bush.)

( - Thursday's Supreme Court ruling upholding the Cleveland school choice program is "groundbreaking" for parents of low-income students, conservatives said. But, America's major teachers' unions and many liberals called the vouchers "divisive."

President Bush praised the ruling, calling it "a victory for parents and children throughout America."

"School choice offers proven results of a better education, not only for children enrolled in the specific plan, but also for children whose public schools benefit from the competition," he said.

"The Milwaukee choice plan, begun in the early 1990s, has resulted in substantially improved ready and math scores for thousands of low-income children. The program has also had a positive impact on the entire public school system, which has responded to competition with better results," Bush added.

He urged Congress to act quickly on the "momentum" of this decision and enact his education priorities.

"The Court's decision is a victory not only for low-income parents and students, but for American education as well," said Chairman of the House Education Committee John Boehner (R-Ohio).

"Educational choice not only gives parents of all income levels the chance to choose the best education possible for their children but also provides a powerful incentive for all schools to strive for high levels of academic achievement," he said.

"The decision should encourage state lawmakers from around the country to create new school choice programs that offer renewed hope for every parent who wants the best education for their child," Boehner added.

But, the National Education Association, one of the nation's largest teachers' unions, called the vouchers "a divisive and expensive diversion from continuing progress."

"Just because vouchers may be legal in some circumstances doesn't make them a good idea," said NEA President Bob Chase.

"Make no mistake," Chase said, "vouchers are not reform. We will continue to fight for public schools and against vouchers. We will continue this fight in allegiance with the vast majority of American parents who want good schools in their communities."

American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman said her union was disappointed with the ruling as well.

"Vouchers are bad education policy, and we will continue to fight efforts to introduce them into public education," said Feldman.

"If this decision brings new efforts to enact voucher legislation, we will fight these efforts. But we will also work with local, state and national policymakers to ensure that private schools that receive public funds are held accountable, just like public schools are," she said.

"This decision will not alter the education landscape," Feldman continued, "the vast majority of children in the United States will continue to attend public schools and we must continue the ongoing successful efforts to improve public education. Today's ruling should not derail that progress."

House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) said school choice opponents have no effective argument against vouchers. He said the ruling will help proponents in their fight for education tax credits.

"The Court's decision means opponents of parental choice need a new argument. This will certainly aid our efforts in Congress to offer education tax credits this year to children who attend schools that best meet their needs," Watts said.

The Family Research Council said the decision will give parents the "power to rescue their children from failing schools," according to FRC President Ken Connor.

"This case was not about the separation of church and state, but about parental choice in education," Connor said. "Today's decision is a win, not only for the parents and students in Cleveland, but also for every parent and student throughout the nation."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a former mayor of Cleveland, said the ruling illustrates that public schools need to be reformed.

"Today's ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court brings to light the desperate conditions that not only the Cleveland school system is in, but schools across the country are in," he said in a statement on Capitol Hill.

"The federal government and this Congress must play an important role in making sure that education is our nation's top priority. We must reaffirm our commitment to insure that all schools are well financed and have well trained and well paid teachers and reduced class size and modernized facilities," Kucinich said.

The group People for the American Way thinks the court's decision cracks the walls between church and state.

"This decision represents a serious crack in the constitutional wall between church and state, and it's especially troubling when part of that wall comes crumbing down on Cleveland's public school children," said PFAW President Ralph Neas.

"Cleveland and other urban schools systems are in tough financial straits. Giving this voucher program a green light only makes that situation worse," he said.

Neas also thinks the decision could have wider implications as well.

"The narrow margin of this decision is a sobering reminder that so much will be at stake when the next Supreme Court vacancy occurs," he said.

"Predictably, Justices Scalia and Thomas were on the wrong side of this decision. If a like-minded justice were to join them on the court, the integrity of the First Amendment's establishment clause would be even in more serious danger," Neas said.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals, which serves 29,000 elementary and middle school principals in the U.S., Canada and overseas, expressed grave disappointment with the court decision.

"Now more than ever, as this nation's diversity increases, it is imperative that we maintain the separation of church and state by reserving public education funds for public schools," said Vincent Ferrandino, NAESP's executive director.

"Opening the door for public funds to be used by religious schools shows great misunderstanding and lack of respect for our nation's essential government document, the Constitution of the United States. This decision is a severe blow to public education and its already inadequate funding. It is disrespectful to the American taxpayer," he said.

The Michigan School Board Leaders Association believes the ruling will be good for education, according to spokesperson Lori Yaklin.

"This is a wonderful day for American children in every school," said Yaklin. "This will help the public schools as they react to the competition that comes from choice. It's a green light for the expansion of school choice all across the country."

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