- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument today in what may be one of the most important landmark decisions in our nation's history. In Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, the court will consider whether the Cleveland school choice program is constitutional.

The state of Ohio implemented a classic and well-designed voucher program for Cleveland because of the extremely poor performance of its schools. The vouchers are focused on children of low-income families, providing up to $2,250 for tuition at the school of their choice.

The vouchers can be used at any private school in Cleveland, religious or nonreligious. The schools cannot use a religious test to determine admission.

Moreover, the vouchers can also be used to pay for personal tutoring for children who stay in the public schools. They can be used for Cleveland charter schools, or for suburban public schools that choose to participate in the program. These public schools would also receive the state's regular funding allocation for each student in a public school, now close to $4,500 per year.

In short, Cleveland's parents are offered the broadest possible array of education choices, including the option of unsubsidized home schooling.

Lawyers have become so used to analyzing these sorts of school choice programs in regard to whether they amount to an establishment of religion. But if you step back a moment and think about the big picture, nothing could be more absurd.

The Cleveland school choice program is the very opposite of an establishment of religion. It expands the education choices of parents to the broadest possible degree, including the entire spectrum of nonreligious public and private schools, as well as private religious schools. Historical establishments, remember, were highly coercive and discriminatory against those who did not choose the favored religion.

Moreover, school choice programs arise out of a secular economic analysis of the best means for addressing the problems of education. The point of school choice is to improve education performance in part by creating competition for public schools, forcing them to improve or lose students. Choice would also allow parents and students to gravitate to the schools that performed the best, improving overall education results. Most importantly, low-income and minority students would be able to choose schools that offered a sound education, enabling them to escape a life of poverty.

In addition, through the resulting education marketplace, innovative new education ideas could be tried across the country on a decentralized basis. The market would then embrace those that were proven to work best.

The market would also offer a diversity of education choices to the public, allowing different parents and students to choose the school that worked best for them. Growing social science research indicates this sound, school choice, economic framework may, in fact, be quite effective in improving education performance and results.

The school choice movement is also grounded in a secular political philosophy that favors freedom of choice in its own right. In this view, an education system that allows parents and students to choose their school from the full range of public and private, religious and nonreligious schools is far superior for that reason alone to a system where the government assigns the student to a school that the government chooses. Through this choice, parents have much greater control over the education of their children. They can choose a school that provides the education content and methods they prefer.

Moreover, because of the power of that choice, schools will be force to serve the parents' preferences and desires.

This is the rationale for school choice programs. They are not an attempt to aid religion. They really have nothing to do with religion, other than allowing the religious to participate on the same terms as everyone else. School choice programs are an economic policy, a secular tool to achieve secular results. They are an expression of a wholly secular, libertarian-oriented, political philosophy. The most prominent advocate of school choice has long been Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who first advanced the foundation for school choice decades ago.

We have come pretty far afield of any soundly based notion of an establishment of religion if the courts are to strike down on establishment grounds a secular economic policy showing great promise of improving education, where religious actors and institutions merely participate along with everyone else on the same terms. Striking down totally inclusive secular school choice programs on establishment grounds would not be truthful to the history of establishments of religion. Nor would it serve any valid or defensible principle of public policy.

Peter Ferrara is executive director of the American Civil Rights Union.

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