- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

After hearing arguments in the Cleveland school-voucher case tomorrow, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are likely to be spending spring reviewing not just legal precedents but findings from social science before announcing their momentous verdict.

In ending state-imposed racial segregation with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, the high court took into account research showing the deleterious effect on African-American children of enforced separation of the races. Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that for the children to be segregated solely because of their race "may affect their heart and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, the Cleveland case, could become every inch the landmark in the struggle for equal educational opportunity that Brown was. In fact, 48 years late, it could deliver on Brown's promise of a liberating education. The case calls on this court to decide if publicly funded vouchers that enable parents to move their children from failing public schools to better-performing private or parochial schools offer a workable way to realize a dream too long deferred.

When the justices look at school choice, they will have the benefit of far higher-quality research than the fad-marketing norm in education. Five studies based on random assignments considered the "gold standard" of research designs because chance is all that distinguishes two groups of subjects from one another now have weighed the impact of vouchers on schoolchildren in Charlotte, Dayton, Milwaukee, New York, and D.C.

In each case, students able to use vouchers to exercise choice and in particular African-American children from the inner city scored significantly higher academically than their peers who were unable to gain vouchers that were awarded by lottery (hence the chance factor).

Thanks to the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the justices now have the opportunity to consider the social impact of two little-known voucher programs that are not just a few years but well more than a century old. The foundation commissioned a study of a voucher system begun in Vermont in 1869 and Maine in 1873 known as "town tuitioning." It enables parents living in rural or small-town districts that do not own or operate schools to send their children to government or nonsectarian private schools elsewhere in the state, or even outside the state. The parents' home district pays the tuition tab.

In looking at the impact of these vouchers, researcher Christopher Hammons found that even after controlling for poverty, per-pupil spending, and urbanization standardized test scores rose in areas that had the greatest possible competition for tuition dollars due to the vouchers.

The benefits of competition were not limited to any particular demographic group. "Schools that are closer to tuition towns whether affluent or poor, rural or urban have higher standardized test scores than schools that are more distant from tuition towns," Mr. Hammons noted. This form of school choice is cost-effective, because to purchase the same 3.4-point gain in state test scores yielded by tuitioning, Vermont and Maine would have to raise per-pupil spending by 13 percent, or some $300 million per year.

Fast forward to Cleveland. In 1995, the Ohio legislature initiated vouchers to address a near-total collapse of the opportunity to learn in the public schools. Only 1 of every 14 Cleveland students graduates on time, and the schools have regularly flunked all or almost all of the state's 27 performance standards. Low-income families obtain $2,250 scholarships to attend private schools that agree to accept the scholarships as 90 percent of tuition. Most of the schools that stepped forward to accept the children are Catholic.

Independent Indiana University researchers have recorded somewhat greater academic gains for Cleveland's voucher students than for their public-school peers. Granted, their studies have not been the randomized, gold-standard variety, but their surveys show the customer satisfaction of voucher parents to be as much as 4 times higher than that for public-school parents. Nevertheless, because most voucher schools unintentionally turned out to be religiously affiliated, enemies of choice seek to convince the Supreme Court to declare the vouchers an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Hello? Parents desperate for a decent education for their children sought these schools. The state did not conspire to force religious influence on them. The Supreme Court will hear from an educationist Old Guard reminiscent of the segregationist Old Guard in 1954 imploring that a system be preserved over the rights of the individual. In pondering the psychological impact of decreeing that 4,000 children must get the boot from their schools of choice, the justices ought to weigh carefully what Chief Justice Warren said about discriminatory actions against children "that may affect their heart and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute in Arlington. As a newspaperman, he covered the closing of the public schools of Prince Edward County, Va., an attempt to avoid compliance with the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision.

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