The national school choice debate has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Today the Justices are scheduled to hear arguments concerning a government-funded scholarship program that gives low-income and mostly minority children a chance to escape the public schools that have failed two generations of Cleveland’s neediest families.
The program offers participants vouchers worth up to $2,500 each year to pay all or part of the tuition at a public, private or religious school of their choice, or for tutoring. Opponents argue that by allowing parents to choose religious schools for their children, the program fosters religion. Powerful teachers’ unions the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers oppose Ohio’s school choice program, even while many urban public school teachers send their own children to private schools.
A quality education is indisputably important if a child is to become a productive and responsible citizen. High quality prison systems are built on the embers of low-quality school systems. When more than two decades of reforms have failed to improve the education and achievement levels at inner city schools, it is high time to try the option of school choice. Far from destroying public schools, as opponents of choice fear, full-blown school choice letting the market forces of supply and demand operate will have an under-appreciated ripple effect.
Unlike the costly, failed efforts of the past, school choice creates a competitive climate that triggers public school reform. If public schools begin to lose pupils to private schools (or public charter schools), and especially if it reduces their per-pupil funding from the state, they suddenly start to shape up.
Florida, for example, required report cards for schools, offering pupils in any class getting an “F” for two years out of four the choice to enroll in a better public, private or religious school at state expense. Only two schools lost pupils under the vouchers-as-a-last-resort plan before all the other schools in danger of the same fate began needed reforms.
The double standard on school choice continues to dismay us. Some of the staunchest objectors to school choice are financially comfortable families who exercise choice when they buy a home in an upscale neighborhood, and in the attendance area of an excellent public school, or can afford to pay the tuition to send their children to a private school. Only the poorest families are expected to forfeit their right to educational options. Not surprisingly, there is considerable support for school choice in inner cities and within minority communities.
The issue before the Supreme Court is whether a state program that provides a choice for all parents, rich or poor, to improve their children’s education by attending religious schools violates the Establishment Clause. We believe that Ohio’s school choice program is constitutional under a line of recent Supreme Court decisions upholding programs that provide money directly to the persons who exercise a genuine and independent choice to spend the money at a sectarian institution. Under the Ohio program, parents may use the scholarship money to enable their children to attend public, charter, or private schools.
Prior to the creation of modest choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida, inner-city minority families had no choice, no opportunity to escape a failing public school. Today, many inner-city schools are still segregated by race whereas private and religious schools participating in school choice programs often are racially diverse. For these reasons, we have assisted the Center for Education Reform in the filing of a friend of the court brief urging the Supreme Court to find that the Cleveland Scholarship Program is a much-needed legal recourse, not an unconstitutional establishment of a religion.
Gregory S. Walden and Matthew F. Stowe serve as counsels to the Center for Education Reform.