Legally, the decision's legacy may have less to do with education and more with church/state issues, in particular President Bush's faith-based initiative. Bush's plan - an attempt to funnel public dollars to religious groups that combine proselytizing with social services such as welfare-to-work and substance- abuse programs - had been languishing even though it remained a rhetorical cornerstone of Bush's domestic agenda. The Supreme Court's decision breathed new life into the faith-based path to privatize the public sector. As Michael Joyce, former head of the conservative Bradley Foundation and current leader of a faith-based advocacy group in Washington, crowed on the day of the decision, it is now possible for "a whole host of social services" be to voucherized.
As if fulfilling Joyce's prediction, in July a federal district judge in Wisconsin cited the Supreme Court decision as she upheld public funding of Faith Works Milwaukee, a program combining "evangelistic outreach" with substance- abuse counseling.
While the decision received scant public attention, voucher advocates and constitutional scholars took note. "This is the first case to come down after the Cleveland voucher decision," said Jeff Figgatt, director of Faith Works Milwaukee, of the July ruling. "This is a ground-breaking case that takes the school voucher case and expands it."
In its school voucher decision, the U.S. Supreme Court laid out a blueprint for constitutional voucher-type programs that fund religious institutions. First, the money must pass through an individual who makes a "true private choice" to use that money at a religious institution, and second, there must be an array of religious and non-religious choices. In the Cleveland case, the 5-4 Court majority ruled that even though more than 99 percent of Cleveland vouchers go to religious schools, parents have an array of educational options, including traditional public schools, magnet schools, and charter schools. Thus, the court reasoned, the voucher program does not favor religion. And because the vouchers go to parents, not directly to a religious school, they aren't a government endorsement of religion.
While Justice David Souter wrote a sharp critique of the majority's view, in the end the conservative justices had the necessary votes.