- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

For Cleveland's schoolchildren, the stakes in the Supreme Court review of Ohio's school voucher program are as high as they can possibly be. The Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case of Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris on Feb. 20, will decide whether children attending private schools with voucher support can stay there; or whether they will be tossed back into the government schools, where they might get lucky and get a decent education. Or they might not.
For these children and their families, defeat in the Supreme Court would be a real tragedy. For their sake alone (and for the sake of sensible jurisprudence in the troubled area of church-state relations), it is imperative that the Supreme Court recognize the reasonable, prudent and constitutional practice Ohio has followed in letting limited state funds follow children into private and parochial schools, selected by them and their parents.
For the broader school choice movement not just vouchers, but tax breaks, home schooling, online services, and the growing array of alternatives to standard-issue government schooling the Supreme Court decision will present an unprecedented opportunity to raise public awareness of the rolling revolution in American education. Strikingly enough, this opportunity exists whichever way the Supreme Court decides.
While school choice can gain a lot of momentum from a favorable Supreme Court ruling, it will persevere and grow stronger even if the Supreme Court says "no" to the needy children of Cleveland. The drive for greater education freedom in this country has become so diverse, so strong, and so deeply rooted in the experience of families who know there is a better way, that a legal setback for vouchers will, in the long run, seem like a temporary anomaly. If Ohio-style vouchers are struck down for any reason, proponents of tax breaks, direct action (such as private scholarship programs), charter schools, and home schooling will surge to the forefront. Even voucher advocates themselves won't waste any time feeling sorry for themselves like anyone with a true mission, they'll go right back to the drawing boards to craft voucher legislation that can sidestep whatever judicial hurdles are put in their path.
In this sense, then, the internal debate among the members of the Supreme Court is not really about whether school choice stands or falls. The debate is about which form of school choice will dominate American education in the next decade.
For proponents of greater education freedom, the Supreme Court's action is an unusual kind of win-win situation: The issue of education freedom will rise in the public's awareness as never before; and the diversity of the education freedom movement will enable it to gather strength from the Supreme Court's decision, win or lose.
For school choice, then, the only way is upward and onward. The Supreme Court can give the movement a great boost, or shape its tactics a bit, but even the Supreme Court can't stop an idea whose time has come. Even for those schoolchildren in Cleveland, there still is great hope even if the Supreme Court declines to do the right thing. If the Supreme Court should be obtuse enough to strike down Ohio's law, other doors will surely open in Cleveland. Parents who have tasted greater freedom of choice will not give up so easily. Private philanthropy, for one, can be critical when Milwaukee faced a similar judicial impasse, the Bradley Foundation stepped up to fund scholarship for students already enrolled in private schools with vouchers.
The Supreme Court will give the school choice movement an unparalleled chance to galvanize the public in favor of greater educational freedom. That chance must be seized, win or lose.

George Pieler is director of the IPI Center for Education Freedom, a project of the Institute for Policy Innovation, Lewisville, Texas.

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