The most notable voucher programs in the nation are in Vermont, Maine, Ohio (Cleveland), Wisconsin (Milwaukee), and Florida. These programs provide parents with greater educational opportunities; however, provisions that include private, religious school choice have been contested in the courts. Nevertheless, full educational choice programs have survived most of the major legal challenges brought against them.
Vermont's voucher program evolved as a result of the state's sparse population, which could not financially support government schools in every community. In order to meet the demands of parents in small towns, the state pays the tuition expenses of approximately $6,000 for a child to attend any government or nonsectarian private school of his choice. Vermont's program even extends to students attending schools outside the state.
This voucher tradition dates back to 1869 and has ensured that both urban and rural Vermont school children face fewer financial barriers when choosing the safest and best secondary schools. Although the initial voucher statute did not distinguish between religious and secular schools, a court ruling in 1961 banned religious schools from receiving state-funded vouchers. Citizens and the school board of Chittenden Town School District in central Vermont challenged the 1961 decision and demanded that full parental choice be restored once again. In June 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously upheld the earlier decisions, ruling that the 130-year-old voucher statute excluded the use of public funds for religious schools.101 Citizens have declined to pursue the case further.
Maine's voucher system is similar to Vermont's, but it pre-dates the nation's founding. In 1981, the state attorney general decided that the voucher program excluded religiously affiliated schools from receiving vouchers in towns that had government-operated high schools. In June 1999, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld an earlier Maine Supreme Court decision that ruled that the state's voucher law must discriminate against religious schools based on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The U. S. Supreme Court will decide whether or not to review this case in late 1999.101
In Cleveland, vouchers worth up to $2,500 each allow 3,000 at-risk children to attend the secular or religious private schools of their parents' choosing. In May 1997, the state appeals court ruled that the voucher law violates federal and state constitutional bans on government aid to religious institutions. Nevertheless, the Ohio legislature allocated the program $15 million for the next two years, expanding the program to 1,000 additional kindergartners and allowing third-graders in the program to continue attending private schools for the fourth grade.
The court's decision came in the wake of studies that demonstrated the academic accomplishment of students and increased satisfaction of parents in the Cleveland program. The Ohio Supreme Court then ruled favorably (for choice proponents) on five of six constitutional challenges, striking down the program on one technical issue. The court explicitly stated that the program did not breach the separation of church and state, so legislators went back to work and drafted a two-year, $17 million extension of the program in 1999.102
After Vermont and Maine, Milwaukee has the longest-running voucher program, but it has also faced similar court battles. In 1998, approximately 1,650 students used vouchers worth roughly $4,400 each (or about one-half of the state per-pupil expenditure for Milwaukee) to attend participating nonsectarian schools. Originally, the plan's proponents also included religious schools, but court injunctions kept eligible students from using vouchers to enroll in them. As a result of documented academic performance, Wisconsin legislators expanded the school choice budget, giving additional Milwaukee students the benefit of choosing alternative schools, including those that are religiously affiliated.
Milwaukee's voucher plan was launched in response to poorly performing city schools. In 1998, Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools Alan Brown suggested that, contrary to public opinion, there was no crisis in his system. Yet results from statewide tests released just four days before the Supreme Court hearing and Brown's proclamation revealed that fewer than 10 percent of Milwaukee's eighth- and tenth-graders ranked "proficient" in math and language. In June 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the inclusion of religious schools in Jackson v. Benson. On November 9, 1998, the U. S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 to let the Wisconsin court decision stand.103
In mid-1999, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida signed into law a bill which will grade individual government schools on a traditional "A" to "F" scale. High-performing schools will receive from the state financial incentives of up to $100 per student, while students in failing schools would be provided with state vouchers worth up to $4,000 each to choose an alternative school.104