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July 6, 2002
Column #1088

HISTORIC SCHOOL CHOICE DECISION

     President Bush flew to Cleveland this week to hail last week's 5-4 Supreme Court decision affirming the constitutionality of public funding for 3,700 low income children to attend private schools.

     "The Supreme Court of the United States gave a great victory to parents and students throughout the nation, by upholding the decisions made by local folks here in the city of Cleveland, OH," he exclaimed, sparking applause.

     "The Supreme Court in 1954 declared that our nation cannot have two educational systems. And that was the right decision. Can't have two systems, one for African-Americans and one for whites. Last week, what's notable and important is that the court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can't. And that is just as historic," said Bush.

     He's right, and is courageous for saying so. There is no political consensus on giving poor students taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend religious schools. Even liberal California voted down vouchers in a referendum.

     "This decision opens a major crack in the Jeffersonian wall of separation of church and state. And the wall is tumbling down on school children," said Elliott Mincberg of People for the American Way. "The result favors religion."

     What's really tumbling down is the dysfunctional hand of monopoly in inner city schools.

     Cleveland's schools are so bad that only one student in 14 graduates from high school on time. In 1995 a Federal Court declared a "crisis of magnitude" and placed the entire Cleveland school system under state control. Ohio responded by creating a Pilot Project Scholarship Program which pays up to $2,250 of tuition for students to attend any private school. As a practical matter, 3,700 students attended 56 private schools, 46 of which were religious.

     Other students enrolled in 23 magnet public schools which attracted 13,000 out of 75,000 students. And a third group of 1,900 students enrolled in start up community schools.

     "Cleveland schoolchildren enjoy a range of educational choices," said Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the court's decision. "They may remain in public school as before...obtain a scholarship and choose a religious school, obtain a scholarship and choose a nonreligious private school, enroll in a community school, or enroll in a magnet schools."

     Opponents argued that the Cleveland vouchers violated the First Amendment's prohibition of the "establishment" of religion, noting that 96 percent of scholarship students attended religious schools. Rehnquist countered, "The Establishment Clause question is whether Ohio is coercing parents into sending their children to religious schools." Given the wide choice offered to Cleveland parents, his answer was no.

     As Justice O'Connor wrote in a concurring opinion, "At most, $8.2 million of public funds flowed to religious schools," while the state spent $9.2 million on community schools and $114.8 million on magnet schools.

     Justice Clarence Thomas quoted ex-slave Frederick Douglass: "education...means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free." Thomas grimly added, "Today many of our inner-city public schools deny emancipation to urban minority students."

     What will be the impact of this landmark decision?

     "States now are free to reform school finance so as to advance choice and healthy competition in education. They could drop guaranteed subsidies of systems that have stubbornly resisted reform and instead let public money follow a child to the school his parents choose," writes Robert Holland of the Lexington Institute.

     Opposition to vouchers remains intense, particularly by teacher unions and Democratic Party leaders. But with the constitutional question settled, there will be pressure in some state legislatures to enact similar programs, such as Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Utah.  Other states have state constitutions which apparently bar vouchers. Expect many law suits.

     There are 27,000 private elementary and secondary schools, half of which are religious with about 5.2 million students, almost equally divided between Catholic and Protestant schools. They will now have a much larger voice in the legislatures, and are likely to grow significantly as Cleveland-type scholarship programs are enacted.

     What Rehnquist liked about Cleveland's system was that in permitted parents "to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious." Thus, the decision may well foster as many new charter public schools as growing religious schools.

     In any case, the decision is a huge victory for parents and children.

 

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