MILWAUKEE—To pay tuition for her three children at St. Albert School in Milwaukee, Linda Cruz begged, borrowed, and worked overtime. But this year, because of Wisconsin's school-voucher program, the full-time crane factory worker can “be more of a mom,” she says.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 9 let stand the Wisconsin program, which offers tax-supported tuition aid to low-income students in Milwaukee. Church-state separation organizations had launched a legal challenge.

“I struggled for many years to keep my kids in there,” says Cruz, a member of St. Albert Parish. “It's because the education is just perfect for them. I've tried to put my kids in public school. They flunked and could not even read.”

Though the debate over vouchers is far from over, parent-business coalitions in a handful of other cities are trying to match Milwaukee's success. Catholic officials across the nation have plenty at stake. And though they have not taken the lead in school choice campaigns, they play a key supportive role.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the 3-year-old voucher program is based not on peddling religious belief, but on parental choice. That is the ruling the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revisit. But the high court decision came not on legal merit, but because no other court in the nation has rendered a conflicting judgment on vouchers. If and when that conflict comes, perhaps over another state's law, the justices probably will rule definitively on school choice.

Those challenging the Wisconsin law include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Education Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These groups argue that the program supports religious catechesis with public funds. The Milwaukee program provides tuition vouchers of up to $4,900 per year per child for use at any school. To qualify, a family of four can earn no more than about $26,000 annually.

Now, 7,500 low-income students take advantage of the program. Most are minorities and most attend religious schools. Almost half of the 88 participating institutions are Catholic.

Walter Jackson Williams III, a 17-year-old senior at Messmer High School, had his full tuition of $4,800 paid this year by the school choice program. “It has helped me and lots of other people I know get an education that would be hard to come by,” says Williams. “If we had gone to public school, we would have missed some of the positive influences, things we experience at Messmer. Some people may have gotten into trouble.”

Williams plans to study political science and journalism at Marquette University. Gail Beanland, Williams'mother, suspects her son would have achieved academically wherever he went to school.

“I'm not going to say public schools aren't good,” says Beanland, a divorced parent who receives federal disability aid because of a job injury. “I just wanted something better, a better environment for him.”

The school aid program may help Messmer continue its rejuvenation. The inner-city school, founded in 1929, had its heyday in the 1950s and '60s. Enrollment declined in the 1980s.

But Messmer is thriving again. This year, the school grew by 16 percent, the largest increase in enrollment of any school in the region. Civic officials are pointing to it as a yardstick of efficiency. Unlike many Milwaukee public high schools, which feature armed police, Messmer manages to avert inner-city woes and produce top-notch graduates. Of a student body of 355, 190 pay tuition with vouchers.

“There have always been kids who were afraid to apply because they were afraid they could not afford the tuition,” says Capuchin Brother Bob Smith, principal of Messmer. “A lot of people said the culture of a school would change if we brought those students in. But our program has not changed one iota in terms of behavioral, social, spiritual, or academic qualities. If anything, they have increased. The key is high expectations.”

Some Catholic schools are facing a sort of chaos intensified by the choice program. At St. Albert School on the south side, 189 of the 210 students receive vouchers for the $900-per-year tuition. Most of the student body is Hispanic, with the rest is made up of Hmongs and African Americans. One in 10 children speaks no English. More than 100 students speak limited English.

“The vouchers provide an opportunity for families who are low income to meet their educational desires,” says Julia Hutchinson, principal of St. Albert's for 11 years. “But it's challenging for the teachers. Kids coming out of public school are behind. Behavior can be a problem. Everything that is allowed in public school is not allowed here.”

Advocates for school choice in Wisconsin succeeded in part because of uncommon partnerships. In Wisconsin, backers of the voucher program include low-income parents, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, African American separatists, conservative businessmen, a school board member who calls himself a “leftist,” libertarians, Latino activists, and a retired public schools chief. “This succeeded because people decided to have parents be lead-advocates for themselves instead of having people do it for them,” says Zakiya Courtney of Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

Howard Fuller, Milwaukee's superintendent of public schools for four years, became one of the primary backers of school choice. In 1995 he resigned in disgust, convinced that the system suffered from inherent flaws that left some students poorly served.

Fuller expects foes of vouchers will attempt sabotage. Some legislators may act to impose a slew of regulations on participating schools. “It gets into the political realm,” Fuller says. “We will always have to be vigilant about that.”

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is part of the coalition that obtained school choice, but was not out front. Organizers like Courtney and Fuller say that no one wanted the effort to be seen as a “Catholic movement.” The archdiocese tends 158 schools with just more than 40,000 students. It is by far the largest private educator in the state. Thirty-seven Catholic schools take part in the voucher program.

“We supported the program as it went through the legislature,” says Jon Huebscher, director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. “We were trying to make it as palatable to religious schools as possible.”

Despite objections from the Church, legislators amended the school choice law, allowing students to opt out of religious activity.

The most ardent supporters of school choice in Wisconsin have been a group of business owners fed up with the quality of job seekers.

In the early 1990s, the businesses amassed a private financial aid fund. The business owners wanted to inject competition into the world of education, convinced that public schools would respond by improving. “We are talking about the education of children here,” says John Stollenwerk, a shoemaker and fund co-chairman. “This is not selling shoes or airline seats. It is something much more important. We have to do what works.”

At the state capitol in Madison, legislators could not help take notice when the business lobby made school choice its top priority for 1995. The aid fund also helped build a constituency of low-income parents who were sold on school choice and let their lawmakers hear about it.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Nov. 9 action is not the last word on the constitutionality of school choice. Appeals went through state channels to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Foes have other avenues of protest. “As night follows day, the next level is that the ACLU or teachers' unions will go to federal court to try to get it knocked out,” says Robert Destro of the law school at The Catholic University of America. “In the long run, I think the school choice side will prevail, but it will be a long time.”

If the issue returns to the current Supreme Court, Destro foresees a close vote, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as the deciding voice. Chris Wolfe, a political scientist at Marquette, also predicts a 5-4 split, with school choice coming out on top.

In this century, Supreme Court cases on education have alternately favored and hampered private schools. In 1922, the court overturned an Oregon law that would have banned private schools. Beginning in the 1940s and through the 1970s, the court “got more serious about secularizing public schools,” Wolfe says.

But in three cases between 1983 and 1993, the court upheld public aid to special students at religious schools. In those rulings, the justices said that religion was incidental to the purpose of the programs. Last year, the court ruled that public special education teachers can travel to religious schools to aid children.

Legal fights over tuition vouchers are under way in Arizona, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Puerto Rico. Legislatures of about half the states have considered voucher programs in recent years. A new ballot measure may come in the next few years in California, says Phillip Jordan.

Jordan, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles School District, now helps the Archdiocese of Los Angeles compile a financial aid endowment for Catholic schools. Since 1988, the archdiocese has collected $94 million, the largest fund of its kind in the nation.

In 10 years, the archdiocese has granted $24 million in financial aid to 32,500 needy students. As hefty as this fund sounds, Jordan says it covers less than half the need.

“We would applaud any effort to create new revenues through vouchers or whatever means,” he says.

In 1993, California voters rejected a school choice initiative. But the past five years of private scholarships and success stories is winning converts, especially among low-income parents, Jordan insists.

Meanwhile, a California business coalition has pledged to help some 3,000 needy urban students through private schools.

Smaller business-backed school choice funds also exist in New York, Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Baltimore. As in Wisconsin and California, the funds are seen as stopgap aid until voucher programs succeed.

Ed Langlois writes from Portland, Oregon.