- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday for and against school choice in a voucher case involving students in Cleveland. Over the last six years, children coming from families with a median income of $20,000 have had the opportunity to enroll in private and parochial schools because of a successful Ohio program that gives parents a maximum of $2,250 to spend on annual tuition. In a city where only about a third of public- school students graduate from high school, this has been welcome assistance.

The decision to be made by the court to uphold or strike down the constitutionality of parental choice in education will shape the debate for other cities, states and the federal government. It will be a landmark decision, ultimately determining the future of many children.

In addition to bolstering public education and striving to leave no child behind, Congress is prepared to support the president and to promote choice in education, beginning with a measure to grant tuition tax credits. Under President Bush's plan, families of children who are locked in a failing public school would be able to enroll in a private or parochial school using a tax credit of up to $2,500 per year, giving them the keys to a more successful future in many cases.

As a result of special-interest pressure, Congress was not able to pass parental choice as part of the No Child Left Behind Act last year, but there are many of us who are hopeful the Supreme Court will recognize the legitimacy of brighter futures and put a legal imprimatur on educational options.

Allowing parents to decide what school best meets their children's needs would strengthen the educational outcome for countless students across the country. "It's basically a G.I. Bill for kids," is the way Clint Bolick, of the Institute for Justice, put it. Mr. Bolick and others are hard at work defending school choice in Cleveland and other voucher-friendly localities. It is truly a grass-roots and community-based effort.

The disconnect between higher education and primary and secondary education is quite puzzling to many supporters of school choice. As anyone who has applied for loans, grants or scholarships knows, there are all sorts of government dollars that flow to private and parochial colleges. Universities across the country receive tax money in many ways, shapes and forms. Why, then, are students in elementary, middle and high schools discriminated against on the issue of choice in education? These children equally deserve the right to attend the schools that fit their needs and offer the best chance for a brighter future.

The black community would particularly benefit if more programs like Cleveland's were to become a reality. Half of all the participants in the Cleveland voucher system are Americans of African descent. And in most polls on the subject of school choice and expanded parental options in education, three out of four black Americans favor the very case I am making today.

Will the Supreme Court see this issue in the same light as proponents and students in Cleveland? I have confidence the Supreme Court will recognize the fact that allowing parents to send their children to the school of their choice does not violate the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. After all, what church or religion does this establish? If someone can answer that question, I'd be the first to change my position.

Federal education funding for public schools has doubled during the lifetime of most elementary- school students. It received the largest increase in the president's budget last year. We can expand parental choice in education while we strengthen public schools. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Nobody is proposing to remove funds from public schools in order to pay for private schools. At the same time, there are students in chronically failing schools. The status quo is not working for children trapped on avenues of hopelessness.

Education reform often takes years to enact and even longer to implement. But there are students who need a brighter future now. The Supreme Court should not take away the hopes and dreams of so many youngsters who finally got a break in life. Parental choice in education ought to be expanded, not expelled.

The Supreme Court has a weighty verdict to make. Some people are even characterizing the case as the Brown vs. Board of Education of the new century. Nevertheless, the options the nine justices have are quite clear: to continue to allow taxpaying parents to use their tax dollars for the school of their choice, or to force parents to send their children to failing, even violent, schools that happen to be within their neighborhood boundaries.

Parents ought to have a choice, and students ought to have a chance. A monopoly on the future of our children is the wrong recipe for a successful future.

America, in the 21st century, should be providing new solutions to old problems. Allowing parents to use their own tax dollars to send their children to schools they choose is a concept that will flourish this year.


Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., a Republican from Oklahoma, is the chairman of the House Republican Conference.


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