WASHINGTON – As the Supreme Court heard arguments on Cleveland’s private school voucher program Feb. 20, Cleveland parents and hundreds of other public education advocates rallied outside chanting, “Kids yes, vouchers no!”

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio ruled that the Cleveland voucher plan violates the First Amendment. But supporters of the voucher scheme filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn that ruling. It sets up a dangerous challenge to the separation of church and state and could open the way for a renewed right-wing attack on public education if the high court rules in support of private school vouchers, rally speakers warned.

Ann Pallotta, whose daughter Molly attends a west Cleveland elementary school, told the rally on the Capitol grounds, “We support public education in Cleveland and throughout the State of Ohio. Public education is the foundation of democracy. The Cleveland voucher program is a diversion of public funds that are supposed to be used for public good.”

Steve Croom, whose daughters Nyssa and Jaelle are enrolled at Forest Hills Parkway Elementary in Cleveland, said, “I myself am the product of the Roman Catholic schools. But I choose to send my children to public schools. Cleveland’s public schools are not failing. The problem is that they are starved for the funding they need.”

According to a fact sheet released by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Cleveland’s public school fourth-graders had the highest percentage gains on the Ohio State Proficiency Test among large districts in the state. Fourth-grade reading scores have risen 44 percent since 1998.

By contrast, the latest official survey found that Cleveland voucher students lagged behind public school students in language, reading and math. Yet the Ohio legislature continues to strip money from the public schools to subsidize private schools. Vouchers, which are limited to $2,250 per pupil, have cost Cleveland public schools $40 million over two years. That money could have been used to reduce class size, fund extended-day programs and buy textbooks, the AFT fact sheet said.

A survey found that 99 percent of the 900 students in the Cleveland voucher program attend Roman Catholic parochial schools.

Wanda Henry, administrator of the Baptist Joint Committee, told the crowd, “Public dollars should fund public education. We urge the administration and Congress … to address the needs of public education in ways that do not violate constitutional principle. Utilizing the things of Caesar to finance the things of God is adverse to true religion and violates the spirit of freedom upon which it is based. Public financial aid to parochial schools earns a failing grade.”

Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, which unites 50 different religious traditions, said, “This is not a time to give up on a government-funded system of public education that is available to everybody. Can you imagine what already would have happened had the time, energy and money devoted to securing vouchers for a few had been invested in public education for all? Governmental sanction for diverting badly needed funds from public schools to benefit selected students at private institutions represents the shocking confession that our government has given up on its public schools. Shame on us if that is our nation’s choice regarding education.”

The Cleveland voucher case is seen by many active in public education as a key education battle. Vouchers, along with privatization and chronic under-funding of public schools are three parts of a multi-sided attack on public education. Many states, including Ohio, have found that inequitable school funding formulas violate their state’s Constitution and federal civil rights laws.

Rev. Efraim Cotto, pastor of a United Church of Christ in Philadelphia, was there to oppose the Cleveland voucher scheme. He angrily assailed former Gov. Tom Ridge and other rightwing politicians for waging a campaign to wreck Philadelphia’s schools. Philadelphia is the most recent target of a privatization scheme by Edison Schools, Inc. a Wall Street firm that seeks to make profit off of public schools.

Demagogically, Ridge twisted demands that per-pupil funding in Pennsylvania be “equitable” by sending equal amounts of state assistance to both rich and poor districts. “So now some wealthy districts spend $50,000 per pupil while Philadelphia struggles on $8,000 per pupil,” Cotto said. It set the stage for the governor to bring in Edison and privatize the schools. “They have used state assistance to actually widen the gap between rich and poor,” he said.

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way said the Cleveland voucher case “could determine the future of church-state separation in America. And it could decide whether precious resources that should be devoted to strengthening public schools will instead be squandered on countless voucher battles at the state and local level.”

He warned that the “rightward shift” of the Supreme Court heightens the danger. Religious right organizations, extremist foundations and other proponents of school vouchers, he said, are poised to launch a massive effort to divert public education funds to religious schools if the Supreme Court upholds the Cleveland voucher plan. “Religious liberty and public education are both at stake.”