Zelman V. Simmons-Harris

1 January 2017

The case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris is a landmark case that dealt with vouches for schooling and the 1st Amendment. The case was officially decided upon on June 27, 2002, but the case and history dates back to 1995. In 1995, the Ohio Legislature passed into law the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program as part of the 1995 budget act. The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program was a pilot program that gave families up $2,250 to support their children’s academics.

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Aid was given to parents according to financial need, and where the aid was spent depended upon where parents chose to enroll their children. Parents were able to opt out of the public school system with this money if they were a part of a failing school district. It allowed parents to choose the school that their children would attend. (Bodwell, 2003) At this time in the United States there was a national movement for allowing school choice and a push for the availability of vouchers.

The many who supported this movement were both conservative and mainstream politicians, independent school administrations, religious leaders, and African American who live in urban areas. Those who opposed school choice included: teachers unions, public school administration, and white suburban citizens who were happy with their public schools. It was also during this time that a push for additional options be available within the public schools.

These options included advanced classes and charter schools. Peterson, 2003) The establishment of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program was modeled after a similar program in Milwaukee that was created a few years earlier. What made Cleveland’s program stand apart from Milwaukee’s and other voucher programs was that it allowed religious affiliated schools to participate in the schooling program. The main reason for the establishment of these programs was to respond to the failure of many public schools, in Cleveland particularly in its poor in city center.

As a result of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, which allowed for religious affiliated schools to participate, 96% of partaking students enrolled in religiously affiliated schools. Due to the number of students enrolled in religious schools, the opponents of school choice challenged the program and brought suit. (Bodwell, 2003) In January 1996, the American Liberties Union and other groups challenged the constitutionality of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program; citing violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The 1st ruling, which was decided upon in July 1996, upheld the program and the vouchers, but was overturned in May 1997 by an unanimous vote by the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals. They ruled the program in violation of both State and Federal constitutions. May of 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the program unconstitutional due to an error in the general budget that the law was passed with. Ohio Legislature quickly fixed that by passing a provision to the educational bill and the program and vouchers continued. Peterson, 2003) The Ohio Education Association, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way filed legal opposition, on July 20, 1999, in federal court.

This suit found the law to be unconstitutional on the grounds of the 1st Amendment and granted an injunction which required all students participating in the program to return back to public schools. That injunction was overturned and the battle raged on, back and forth, until September 2001 when the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002) The ruling that came down from the United States Supreme Court found that the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program did not violate the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. According to the ruling, the main reason why the program was not in violation was because it served a secular purpose and not a religious one. It was the purpose of the program to allow the parents to choose how to spend the money and on what type of schooling. It has no bearing on the government if the parents chose a religious affiliated school.

The government’s role ends with the delivery of the vouchers to the parents. “The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits. ” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002) In other words, the purpose of the law is to provide parents with the right to choose the educational setting for their children if the setting that the government is providing for them is inadequate.

This ruling from the United States Supreme Court had and continues to have an effect on education and the law. Since the ruling many other states have tried to initiate similar programs to the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program to help students in failing school districts, but have not been successful. For example, in Missouri, programs have tried to be passed but due to the explicitly strict writing of the states’ constitution all of these types of programs are ruled unconstitutional, no matter how well intended.

Many states are in confusion over vouchers and the proper use of them. (Crisafulli, 2003) Issues of taxpayers’ monies being spent on the teaching of religious ideas to students was a question that was brought up due to the ruling. Many people do not want their money being spent on teaching religious beliefs to students. A huge ruling was made through Zelman v. Simmons-Harris on the bearing of the separation of church and state. Many feel that this action and ruling truly does violate the 1st Amendment and that through this ruling an opening was created. Marks, 2002) Another concern is lack of funding being given to the school districts that are losing the students due to vouchers. This is an issue many people feel strongly about. People feel that the vouchers are taking funding away from public schools that truly need the aid, and that the removal of students from those schools brings up the problem of fewer resources being available to the public schools.

Another issue is that the students participating in the school voucher programs have not shown any discernible student achievement. Marks, 2002) Despite all the controversy and issues that the vouchers present, they allow for the parents right to choose to remove their children from a failing school district with the help of the government. The Supreme Court ruling was justified in its decision, for the government is not forcing or promoting the attendance of school with religious affiliations. The government is simply allowing the parents the right of choice. Parents have the right to choose to keep their children in a failing school, or place them in other school.

All parents of children, including the ones who send their children to religious schools on their own dime, pay taxes and helps support the programs. So why should it not be allowed to help support the parents and children with vouchers? Vouchers are just another resource for parents and students to take advantage of if they need the aid. (Crisafulli, 2003) The battle of vouchers and schools of religious affiliation is far from over. Courts all over the United States are deciding what is constitutional and what is not.

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