22nd September 2009
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris
The Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case was about vouchers being provided to children for alternative education in Ohio. This was a pilot program set up to give equal educational opportunities to families who resided in the Cleveland City School District. This program was designed for families who needed financial aid for their children’s education and whose public school system had failed to provide them with a basic education. Through this scholarship program, the parents could send their children to either a school or a private school (religious or non religious). This system was designed to improve the quality of education in Ohio, particularly in the Cleveland City School District. The main argument within the case is whether this program goes against the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, which establishes the separation of church and state. The Cleveland City School District stated that all schools whether religious or non-religious, might participate in the government voucher program. The tuition aid portion of the program was designed to provide educational choices to parents in a district where schools were failing to provide an education that was up to the standards of the government. The private schools that participated were told to be especially careful not to discriminate in the admissions process on the basis of color, race, religion or ethnic background. All schools that were participating in this program, whether public or private, were required to accept students in accordance with rules and procedures laid down by the superintendent. The program provided tuition vouchers for up to $2,250 a year to some parents of students in the Cleveland City School District to attend public or private schools in the city and neighboring suburbs. There were more than 3,700 students that participated in the scholarship program, most of which (96%) enrolled in religiously affiliated schools. The majority of these families (60%) were below the poverty line. The schools, however, were entitled to their own academic independence, could hire their own teachers, and set their own curriculums. Since the number of students exceeded the number of vouchers that were available, recipients were chosen by a lottery from amongst the eligible families.
The majority opinion in the case, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that there was no dispute that the program challenged was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a depleted public educational system. Therefore, Justice Rehnquist firmly asserted that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause as it was an individual choice in which the student decided which school to attend and the government could not interfere when it came to education if the program was valid and it had a secular purpose. This pilot program was an acceptable program as it had a secular purpose in that it assisted students who were not economically well off to get a proper education from a public or private institution. Chief Justice Rehnquist also said that there was a difference between giving money for religious purposes and private education, and he claimed that this program did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Justice Souter, in the minority