In the biggest legal victory yet for the nation's school-choice movement, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that poor children in Milwaukee can attend religious schools at taxpayer expense.
The 4-2 ruling allows the expansion of a landmark program that, until now, restricted participation to non-religious private schools.It would allow as many as 15,000 students - about 10 times the current number - to go to religious schools or other private schools under the same tax-funded program, which gives poor families roughly $5,000 a year for each youngster.
It is the first school-choice ruling by a state's highest court. School-choice lawsuits are pending in Ohio, Arizona, Vermont and Maine.
"Through today's decision, the court has unleashed one of the most powerful forces in the universe - competition - to streng-then the learning experience for every child, in every school," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The justices ruled the expanded program does not violate the U.S. Constitution because it does not promote religion or link church and state.
A student may qualify for the program "not because he or she is a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or an atheist; it is because he or she is from a poor family and is a student in the embattled Milwaukee Public Schools," Justice Donald Steinmetz wrote.
However, dissenting justices said the program violated Wisconsin's constitutional provision prohibiting state expenditures for religious societies or seminaries.
Milwaukee's public schools have been under fire for low graduation rates, low test scores and low attendance.
"Now their choice is not limited to public schools based on their parents' income," said Zakiya Courtney of Parents for School Choice in Milwaukee.