- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Almost half a century ago in Topeka, Kansas, Linda Brown had to take a bus five miles to a poorly-equipped school, even though there was a perfectly good public school just four blocks from her house. The "problem" was that she was black. Today, 48 years after Thurgood Marshall argued against racially segregated schools in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court will be asked in the case Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris to decide the constitutionality of a voucher program in Cleveland. The program allows more than 4,000 of Cleveland's poor students, most of whom are minorities, to escape the city's failing schools by going to the school of their choice. Those opposing the program, represented by National Education Association (NEA) General Counsel Bob Chanin, will argue that because the vouchers sometimes go to schools that are religious, the state is fostering religion and that funding for public schools is at stake. Unfortunately, those public schools failed Cleveland's inner-city minority poor long before the voucher program came along, and continue to do so. But the NEA would keep them in those schools, ensuring that a good education will be limited to the few: rich, white suburban children or city residents who can afford to go to private schools.

"It's not draining funds from the public school system. They weren't doing anything with the funds when they had it anyway. Your kid was just a number," said Eulanda Johnson, a Cleveland mom who came to town for the hearing. She's right. In the late 1990s, the Cleveland school district was the lowest-performing in Ohio, with Cleveland's graduation rate at 28 percent, among the worst in the country. The voucher program, which provides up to $2,250 per child to be used for tutoring in the public or private school of their family's choice, was a godsend to urban parents with few educational choices for their children. Unfortunately, suburban public schools refused to allow vouchers to be used there, and Cleveland public schools insisted that children go where they are assigned by the district, unless they were lucky enough to be accepted to a charter or magnet school. The only places willing to accept the vouchers were private, mostly religious schools.

Voucher opponents would argue that the poor students should be forced to stay in failing schools because allowing tax dollars to go to private, mostly religious schools is a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But poor, inner-city parents understandably don't buy that argument. "I paid those tax dollars, and nobody asked me my religion," Christine Suma, a litigant and Cleveland mom with four children receiving vouchers told The Washington Times yesterday.

Linda Brown did not bring the nation to understand the virtues of desegregation to watch the children of Mrs. Suma and Mrs. Johnson be denied the right to go to a school that will give them a chance to have a good education. The Supreme Court should not stand in their way.

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