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S. Supreme Court Decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris:
On June 27, 2002 the U. S. Supreme Court issued a split five-four decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, et. al., the religious school / school voucher case.
Chief Justice Rehnquist authored the opinion. He was joined by Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas. Dissenting opinions were filed by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.
Although this case is often called "the school voucher case", the word "voucher" is not mentioned in the majority opinion. Instead, the decision focuses on issues related to using tax dollars to support a religious institution. The full decision with concurring and dissenting opinions is long; the majority opinion is less than one-fourth of the decision.
The decision begins with this statement:
"The State of Ohio has established a pilot program designed to provide educational choices to families with children who reside in the Cleveland City School District. The question presented is whether this program offends the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. We hold that it does not."
In the second paragraph of the decision, Chief Justice Rehnquist describes the dismal state of public education in Cleveland and the impact this has on poor children who attend Cleveland public schools (NOTE: Words and sentences in bold were added by Pete Wright to emphasize key issues and concepts):
"It is against this backdrop that Ohio enacted, among other initiatives, its Pilot Project Scholarship Program . . . (which) . . . provides financial assistance to families in any Ohio school district that is or has been 'under federal court order requiring supervision and operational management of the district by the state superintendent.'"
The following text contains selected quotes from Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion:
"Cleveland is the only Ohio school district to fall within that category.
program provides two basic kinds of assistance to parents of children
in a covered district. First, the program provides tuition
aid for students in kindergarten through third grade, expanding
each year through eighth grade, to attend a participating public or
private school of their parent's choosing. Second, the program
provides tutorial aid for students who choose to remain enrolled
in public school.
program is part of a broader undertaking by the State to enhance the
educational options of Cleveland's schoolchildren in response to the
1995 takeover. That undertaking includes programs governing community
and magnet schools.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents a State from enacting laws that have the "purpose" or "effect" of advancing or inhibiting religion. "[W]e continue to ask whether the government acted with the purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion [and] whether the aid has the `effect' of advancing or inhibiting religion" (citations omitted)).
There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system.
the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless
has the forbidden "effect" of advancing or inhibiting religion.
believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private
choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus
constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral
in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted
undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities
to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational
assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without
reference to religion, i.e., any parent of a school-age child who resides
in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation
of all schools within the district, religious or non-religious. Adjacent
public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to
do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral
terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere
in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive
greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
It is so ordered."
END OF QUOTED PORTIONS OF DECISION
& Zellman: Increased Choices & Options for Parents:
In 1993, the U. S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter. The Carter decision expanded parental choice about where disabled children could be educated and by whom.
In Carter, the school district failed to provide Shannon with an appropriate education. By the end of ninth grade, Shannon was reading at the fifth grade level and doing math at the sixth grade level.
Shannon's parents placed her in Trident Academy, a private special education school where she received an appropriate education. At Trident Academy, Shannon learned to read, write, spell and do arithmetic.
The school district refused to reimburse Shannon's parents for her education at Trident Academy because the private school did not meet state education standards.
Court: Emphasis on State Standards is "Ironic"
The Court ruled that failure to meet state standards did not bar reimbursement:
"Indeed, the school districts emphasis on state standards is somewhat ironic. As the Court of Appeals noted, it hardly seems consistent with the Acts goals to forbid parents from educating their child at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school system that failed to meet the childs needs in the first place. 950 F.2d. at 164.
After Carter, a federal court ordered a Maryland school district to reimburse Alex Gerstmyer's parents for their son's education at a Montessori school. (Gerstmyer v. Howard County Public Schools, 850 F. Supp. 361, 20 IDELR 1327, (D. MD 1994))
Parents of children with disabilities like autism and PDD were awarded reimbursement for homebased ABA Lovaas programs. (See Mr. X v. New York (S.D. NY 1997); T. H. v. Bd. Ed. Palatine IL (N. D. IL 1999); Independent Sch. Dist. No. 318 (MN SEA 1996). For more more cases, go to the Caselaw Library and the Autism Topics page.)
The Zelman decision increases parental options and choices again.
Paige: "Zelman Increases Options & Choices When System Fails"
"It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Supreme Court's decision yesterday in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Cleveland school choice case." LINK
"In Zelman, the court recognized not only the compelling need for children and families to acquire a decent education but also the importance of parents' being able to do something when their children's schools don't work . . . it is the parents who make the decision about where to send their child, not the system."
"The court correctly reasons that a public interest -- education -- can be advanced by a private, in this case religiously affiliated, institution. But the court's decision sends a more significant message. The purpose of American public education is just that, education. For a long time, our system of public education did a pretty decent job of delivering an education to most of the American people. But times have changed. By almost every indicator, the "system" is no longer up to the job.
"The No Child Left Behind Act, when fully implemented, will make it easier to determine what works and what doesn't in America's schools, and it will carry consequences for failure. Among the consequences are public school choice and access to supplemental educational services, both underwritten by federal dollars. Now the Supreme Court has opened the door to even broader school choices, not only ushering in a new era in American education policy but also potentially starting a reformation in American public education. What must emerge through this education reformation should be a focus on students and achievement, rather than on the 'system.'"
"During the last 20 years, every social and economic institution in America has undergone profound change: banking, health care, insurance, manufacturing. Until now, education seemed almost immune to the sort of change that institutions must undergo to remain relevant."
"Almost 50 years ago the Supreme Court considered the condition of American education and recognized the need to usher in a new era . . . the doctrine of "separate but equal" could not be reconciled with the Constitution's demands for equal protection. Brown v. Board of Education changed American education forever. I know because I grew up in the South when schools were segregated. With Brown, education became a civil rights issue, and the decision introduced a civil rights revolution that continues to this day."
v. Simmons-Harris holds the same potential. It recasts the
education debates in this country, encouraging a new civil rights revolution
and ushering in a "new birth of freedom" for parents and their
children everywhere in America." Read
"A Win for America's Children" by Rod Paige.
Most public discussion of this case has focused on vouchers that allow parents to remove their children from failing public schools and place their children in private schools, including private schools that have religious affiliations. Commentators have discussed the presumed adverse financial impact to failing public schools if parents remove their children from these schools and place their children in private schools.
When you read this decision, you will see that the justices did not express concerns about a negative financial impact on public school systems even if these vouchers were limited to schools that did not have religious affiliations.
Assume for discussion that the Ohio law had limited "vouchers" to exclude schools with religious affiliations. There would have been no case.
Can we assume that vouchers are here to stay? If Congress acts to overturn the impact of Zelman, how will Congress address vouchers for private schools that do not have religious affiliations?
Readers who want to learn more about the Establishment Clause as it affects children with disabilities should read the earlier U. S. Supreme Court opinion in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1 (1993).
Zobrest, the Supreme Court held that a public school
district may constitutionally use IDEA funds to provide a sign language
interpreter for a deaf student at a Catholic high school. Under Zobrest,
providing government services to a religious school will survive a First
Amendment challenge if:
who are interested in educational policy and civil rights should read
the decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in Brown
v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954):
from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Florence
County v. Shannon Carter:
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Copyright © 1998-2023, Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright. All rights reserved.