- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

School choice supporters say they remain determined in their quest for meaningful education reform despite recent losses in two state ballot initiatives over school vouchers and polls that suggest a majority of the public is against them.
The movement suffered a loss last week when a federal appeals court ruled against the 4-year-old Cleveland Scholarship Program, which offers taxpayer-funded vouchers to about 4,000 low-income students. But choice advocates say they remain undaunted in their long-term battle to demand greater opportunity and educational equity for all students.
They anticipate a definitive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that will give states and lower courts clear direction on the future of vouchers nationwide.
"We are not a defeated movement," said lawyer Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, who has defended several school voucher cases. "We are a movement that continues to score success after success."
Susan Mitchell, president of the American Education Reform Foundation, also downplayed any suggestion that school choice proponents have suffered insurmountable wounds.
"I think the initiative defeats in California mask a lot of positive news in the movement," Miss Mitchell said.
Speaking at a recent school choice forum in Washington sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, she called for an expansion of gains made in voucher programs that are in place in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio.
"We need to stick to the basics and avoid the trap of believing we can get a quick and easy victory," she said.
Howard Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University who founded the Black Alliance For Educational Options (BAEO), said he thinks it is critical for school choice supporters to form grass-roots organizations around the nation. His group, which is running a $1.3 million television ad campaign in the D.C. area, is committed to forming local BAEO chapters over the next several years.
"This movement is not about ideology. It's about empowering the poorest parents to be able to make choices for their children," said Mr. Fuller, who leads Marquette's Institute for the Transformation of Learning.
"Choice in America is widespread unless you are poor," he said. "We want all children to be in good schools, but we want parents to be able to decide which schools are best for their children."
Terry Moe, a professor of political science and a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said Americans remain "very uninformed" about school vouchers. They are publicly and in some cases privately funded scholarships that allow mainly low-income children to attend private schools.
"People don't want programs that are too big with radical change," he said.
In California, for example, the most recent ballot initiative offered school vouchers to any student in the state, rather than targeting poor students or those in urban areas where schools performed poorly.
"Even in urban areas, most people have a positive view of their public schools, but they think the private schools are better … and they want access to that," he said.
Mr. Bolick, whose public-interest law firm has represented several school voucher cases before the courts, said there is strong evidence that the threat of vouchers cause improvement in public schools.
Researchers for the Institute for Justice, using public records, compiled a study of Florida school districts and targeted those schools that were on the state's failing list.
Under a state reform program developed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, children in schools that received two failing grades in a row based on state tests can receive state money to attend better public schools or other private schools.
All 70 schools that failed in the first year of the Florida program brought their grades up the next year, eliminating the need for vouchers, Mr. Bolick said. The pressure worked, he added.
"All in all, this was a very good year on the legal front," said Mr. Bolick, who represented Cleveland voucher families in the case that was struck down this week by a federal appeals court. It ruled vouchers there violated the Constitution's separation of church and state.
"The prospects at the U.S Supreme Court are very positive," Mr. Bolick said.
Mr. Fuller said school choice supporters in the future must clarify that vouchers are not the only alternative for reform. He cited charter schools, contract schools and other state choice efforts, which include tuition tax credits for private education.

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