- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

Until 1995, Cleveland public schools were a disgrace. Students left them with the worst record of academic performance in the state of Ohio, and among the worst in the nation. They had a dropout rate of almost 70 percent. As a result, most families that could afford to pulled their children out of the public schools, leaving mostly children from low-income or minority families sentenced to a life of poverty and ignorance. To solve this problem, Ohio created a financial-aid program that enables parents to lift their children out of this swamp by giving them vouchers to pay tuition at private schools. A group of Ohio taxpayers sued to block the program, arguing that it illegally provided financial aid to religious schools. The federal courts found that the program had the primary effect of advancing religion in violation of the Constitution and blocked it. On Thursday, the Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the Cleveland vouchers program in a decision that will transform American education.
Writing for the majority 5-4 majority in the Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris case, Chief Justice Williams Rehnquist said, "That the [Cleveland] program was one of true private choice, with no evidence that the state deliberately skewed incentives toward religious schools, was sufficient for the program to survive scrutiny under the Establishment Clause." The point is inescapable: If the choice is made by the parents, not the state, the fact that the parents choose to pay the money to religious schools is irrelevant to determining whether the program is an unconstitutional action imposing religion.
Educrat groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) condemn the decision because it takes money and students out of the failed public schools. NEA's condemnation rings awfully hollow. If more money were all that is required, why do Cleveland public schools that receive more than $7,000 per student every year produce such dismal results? The answer is that they face no competition. Not only that, but they also absorb money without being accountable for how it is spent. Any monopoly, including public schools, always finds competition unfair. But with this decision, Cleveland schools and all other public schools around the country will have to compete for money and students. They will have to produce smarter children, not just whine about insufficient federal and state funding.
There is no more American a concept than freedom of choice, and that is what school vouchers are all about. Every state in the union should take advantage of this decision and force competition into public education. Many will, and as Landmark Legal Foundation President Mark Levin said, "the same organizations that have fought school choice in Ohio will try to use the courts to stop vouchers in other states." The battle is far from over. Both the American Civil Liberities Union and a number of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, say vouchers threaten religious liberty. But the Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris decision gives parents real hope. It's time to free children from the shackles of a public education system that doesn't educate. School vouchers are one great way to do it.


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