In the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, upholding the use of tax-funded vouchers to enable families to escape chronically failing public schools, educational freedom of choice has not exactly spread like wildfire across the nation. Until this spring.
Of course, foes of parental choice, like the leaders of the nation’s teacher unions, have fought against it relentlessly, often exploiting anti-Catholic bigotry embedded in the constitutions of 26 states as a way to scuttle vouchers. In the 5-4 Zelman decision, the High Court did not address those so-called Blaine Amendments.
Now, following state lawmaking sessions in the first half of 2005, the voucher movement has regained its momentum with historic victories in Ohio and Utah.
In Ohio, Governor Bob Taft last month signed a budget that will enable up to 14,000 students in grades K-12 to receive tuition vouchers for transfer to private schools when their assigned public
schools persistently rank among the state’s lowest academic performers. The first scholarships will be awarded for the 2006-07 school year.
Basically, this voucher plan builds on the successful one begun in Cleveland nine years ago. It was Cleveland’s vouchers (which are targeted to the neediest students) that the High Court declared acceptable in Zelman. “For more then a generation, Cleveland’s public schools have been among the worst performing public schools in the nation,” wrote Chief Justice Rehnquist for the Court. “Few of these families enjoy the means to send their children to any school other than an inner-city public school.” Taft’s budget takes the Cleveland program statewide and expands the original Cleveland Scholarship Program to the 11th and 12th grades.
In March, Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., signed a bill making Utah the second state in the nation to enact a voucher program enabling students with disabilities to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. Florida was first with its McKay Scholarships, enacted in 2001.
School-choice progress in 2005 does not end with Ohio and Utah. The Alliance for School Choice has noted that school-choice measures targeted to students in need passed 16 legislative houses in 10 states this year. Pennsylvania this week expanded its tax credit program for spreading the benefits of educational freedom.
Ultimately, it may take a second U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating the Blaine Amendments to truly burst the floodgates. That is one reason the selection of a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is so important. Justice O’Connor’s was the crucial vote that swung Zelman in favor of families who needed publicly funded scholarships to be able to choose decent schools.
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