WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether school voucher programs are constitutional.

In orders released Sept. 25, the court agreed to hear three related cases challenging a Cleveland program that gives parents of about 4,000 students vouchers they can use to pay tuition at parochial or private schools or to attend a public school outside their own district.

Most of the students attend religious schools, primarily Catholic. The program provides up to $2,500 per student per year for low-income families. It has continued to operate while lawsuits are on appeal.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December ruled against the voucher program, saying it “involves the grant of state aid directly and predominantly to the coffers of the private, religious schools, and it is unquestioned that these institutions incorporate religious concepts, motives and themes into all facets of their educational planning.”

The Ohio Supreme Court had upheld the voucher program.

The case will be heard during the court's term, which starts Oct. 1, but no sooner than December. A ruling would likely come before the court recesses in June.

In Cleveland, 3,859 students at about 50 schools are enrolled in the program. Participation has grown from 1,994 in the 1996-97 school year, reported the Associated Press.

Priority is given to families in poverty, but families with incomes up to twice the federal poverty level can qualify.

The Supreme Court will hear challenges to the voucher program early next year. The high court last ruled on vouchers directly in 1973. It forbad a voucher program on the grounds that public money mustn't “subsidize and advance the religious mission of sectarian schools.”

Since then, the court has harked back to earlier days and allowed government aid to religious schools, though only for remedial tutoring and the purchase of computers. It has also allowed certain pro-voucher decisions from lower courts to stand.

Critics quoted by the Associated Press said that vouchers do little to provide school choice.

“What's happening in Cleveland is that the parents of these youngsters are being given up to $2,250 to attend the same private schools they probably would have attended even without the vouchers,” said Joanne DeMarco, a public school teacher and vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.

“We think vouchers are not good public policy because all it does is take millions of dollars away from the schools we teach in,” she added.

Steve Suma, a Cleveland father of four, disagreed. His children are being educated at Catholic schools thanks to vouchers. He told the Associated Press that he should be able to put his tax dollars to use to find a better education for his children.

“It's our money and it should go to the school of our choice,” he said. “We don't have good choices of public education, basically because there's no competition.”