- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

"Freedom!" "Justice!" "Freedom!" "Justice!" Hundreds of parents and students from around the country had gathered by the steps of the Supreme Court Feb. 20 to call for Cleveland's voucher system to be declared constitutional, even if many of the parents chose to use their vouchers in religious schools. What they were fighting for is a program that allows students to escape Cleveland's public schools with vouchers worth up to $2,250 in state money per child to be applied toward the public or private school of the parents' choice. This year, 4,300 Cleveland students participated, most of them poor minority children. Those leading the rally, such as Kaleem Caire, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Cleveland mom Christine Suma, were already hoarse.
"What do we want?" "Vouchers!" "When do we want them?" "Now!" They had no platform to set them off from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, but an old-fashioned crate was serving the purpose well. The microphone faded in and out, so they just shouted louder. This was America, and they were going to make their choice for a better education for their children known. In Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, parents' right to choose a better school for their children was at stake, and it would serve as a foundation for voucher program controversies around the country.
Suddenly a grandmother emerged from the pillars of the courthouse and made her way slowly down the steps alone, swaying both her hands over her head from side to side to the roar of approval from the crowd. It was Councilwoman Fannie May Lewis, one of the most fervent advocates for vouchers from Cleveland.
"The high point was when the last attorney could not defend the unconstitutionality of money going to Catholic schools," Mrs. Lewis said later. "What came out even more was that they don't want the poor to have a choice," she said. "We're not looking for religion. We're looking for good schools."
Representing those opposing the vouchers was Bob Chanin, the general counsel for the largest teacher's union, the National Education Association. He argued that of those who use the vouchers to go to private schools, 99.4 percent go to religious schools, making the government appear to be funding and promoting religion, in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. Justice Antonin Scalia did not buy his argument.
"How should Ohio get from here to there? Abolish all the inner city religious schools and start from scratch?" he asked. Mr. Chanin and American Federation of Teachers attorney Marvin Frankel were in favor of using the money to improve public schools, not send students to alternative schools.
"Your assumption is that the problem is a problem of money, but inner city parochial schools spend much less and do a better job," Justice Scalia told Mr. Frankel.
In fact, private, mostly religious schools were the only schools benevolent enough to take the low voucher amount of $2,250. While the program was set up to allow children to be able to use the vouchers for tutoring, or to go to a public or private school of their choice, the public suburban schools all refused to participate. Cleveland's public schools, which had a graduation rate of 28 percent in the late 1990s, did not provide a good alternative.
In the voucher advocates' favor, Justice Sandra O' Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy reminded Mr. Chanin that Ohio did provide parents with choice 2,000 children attend publicly-financed charter schools, and another 16,000 have transferred to magnet schools, at almost twice the cost to the state taxpayer around $4,294 per student in 2001 the same amount it costs for a student to go to public schools. In addition, those who chose to go to private rather than magnet schools did the public schools a favor public schools retained the remainder of the funds not used by the children, even though those children did not remain at those schools.
But Mr. Chanin said the magnet and charter schools were irrelevant, since they don't charge parents with tuition costs directly. "It was never created to be in both public and private schools," he told The Washington Times about the Cleveland voucher program. "The state could have forced the suburban public schools to have accepted the vouchers, but the state chose not to do so," he said.
"We don't do that in Ohio," Assistant Ohio Attorney General Judith French, who was representing the voucher parents, said in an interview. "We allow them their own authority," she said about the suburban public schools. She said everyone in Cleveland was eligible for the vouchers, with priority given to those whose family income is below the poverty line. Unfortunately, many parents in the public schools do not realize this. Doris Simmons-Harris, the woman for whom the case is named, had a son in third grade in the public school when the case was filed seven years ago. While she said she was happy with Cleveland public schools, she said she never considered applying for a voucher because she was afraid her son, who has attention deficit disorder, wouldn't be accepted to a private school.
"It would have been a headache if I would have tried to apply to a private school," she told The Times. In reality, many private schools in this country have often been more likely to open their doors to children of color, poverty and behavioral or achievement problems than public schools.
The ultimate question that opponents to Cleveland's voucher program will have to answer was voiced by Doris Durica, a Cleveland mother and widow at the rally: "Would they send their children to Cleveland public schools?"
May the justices have the wisdom to not stand in the way of parents' right to choose a good education for their children.

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