It was 10:30 a.m. Thursday, and Ray Haynes, Republican state senator from Riverside, Calif., was at his computer tapping out one of the myriad resolutions railing against the previous day's court-of-appeals decision outlawing the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a news bulletin popped up in his e-mail In box: the U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld the constitutionality of a school-voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, that uses taxpayer money to pay for private and parochial schools. "I called in my staff who were working on the pledge situation and said, 'You really have to get going on vouchers right now. This is literally what we've been waiting for,'" says Haynes. By day's end, he and his crew had drafted a bill that would grant parents in California a tuition voucher of about $4,000 to pay for their child's education.
You wouldn't know it from the pledge panic gripping the TV talk-show circuit, but the 98-page decision handed down by the high court just hours before it adjourned for the term was the legal verdict of true import for religion and schools in the U.S. At issue was Cleveland's pioneering school-voucher program, which gives more than 3,700 of the city's 75,000 students each a voucher worth up to $2,250 to attend private schools. With more than 96% of those students enrolling in religious schools, voucher opponents contended the system flouted the Constitution's church-state separation. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority in the 5-to-4 decision, affirmed that Cleveland's vouchers are "entirely neutral with respect to religion" because parents retain a "true private choice" of where and how to educate their kids.
The constitutional question settled, pro-voucher legislators like Haynes immediately set out to pump political life into the moribund education-reform movement. Most statehouses are recessed for the summer, but lawmakers in a dozen states are already talking of drafting new voucher bills or dusting off legislation that had languished in earlier sessions. It took Republican Congressman Dick Armey only a few hours to introduce legislation authorizing a voucher plan for poor students in Washington, D.C. And voucher proponents promised more bills in more states in the coming months.
Also ahead are more court skirmishes. Dozens of states have constitutions more restrictive than the federal charter. While some of them contain blanket assurances of "universal access" to public education, three dozen have another legal hurdle: the so-called Blaine Amendment, added in a late-19th century burst of anti-Catholic bigotry, which expressly bans the transfer of public money to religious schools. On the day of the Supreme Court decision, the Institute for Justice, the conservative legal group that defended the Cleveland program, swiftly announced plans to litigate the Blaine clauses.