Article Published in The Record (Hackensack, NJ)
The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday delivered a huge victory for the right of all parents to direct their children’s education as they see fit.
The 5-4 majority did so by affirming the constitutionality of an Ohio program that provides low-income Cleveland parents tax-supported vouchers worth $2,250 per pupil, which they may use to transfer a child to a participating private school of the family’s choice. Cleveland’s inner-city public schools are among the lowest-performing in Ohio.
The High Court’s decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris means 4,000 Cleveland children will not be forced back into chronically failing public schools. But the verdict has broader implications for parental rights and education reform across the nation.
States now are free to reform school finance so as to advance choice and healthy competition in education. They could drop guaranteed subsidies of systems that have stubbornly resisted reform and instead let public money follow a child to the school his parents choose.
Such child-centered funding would be a big step toward equity because low-income families would gain the power that affluent ones already have to choose a school that works. For minority families, theZelman decision could deliver what the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision promised but never delivered: equal educational opportunity.
Moreover, choice can be liberating for families of all socioeconomic backgrounds. In Florida, thousands of children are benefiting from tax-supported McKay Scholarships that enable their parents to transfer them to better private or public schools when their special needs are not being satisfactorily addressed. The Cleveland verdict ensures the future of such promising innovations as the McKay vouchers.
Zelman puts to rest the argument of choice foes (including the teacher unions and others) that the First Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause forbids parents from using public vouchers to pay tuition at religious schools. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said Cleveland’s pilot program permits individuals “to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious.” Consistent with a string of precedents, the majority drew a distinction between indirect aid that results from parents freely choosing religious schools, and direct government aid to such schools, which is more problematic.
In Cleveland, 96 percent of voucher students did wind up at religious schools but that was not by design. Ohio invited suburban public schools to accept voucher students but they all refused. Also, the small amount of the voucher ($2,250 plus a maximum of $250 from the parents) deterred entrepreneurs from starting new schools.
Rehnquist enumerated the opportunities for public-school choice within Cleveland via magnet and alternative schools, and noted that when those enrollments are added to choosers of vouchers, the proportion of students selecting the faith-based option falls to less than 20 percent. Therefore, one test of the constitutionality of future voucher programs permitting a choice of religious schools likely will be inclusion of other forms of publicly funded choice.
As market-based reform goes forward, increasing the size of the voucher could be a good starting point for reformers. After all, with many substandard government school systems spending more than $10,000 per child, a voucher of $5,000 per child would hardly be exorbitant. Students educated with better results for half what government schools spend could provide economies as well as desperately needed competition. Larger vouchers could encourage more private, non-sectarian schools to enter the mix.
With the High Court’s long-awaited decision, the primary battleground shifts from the legal to the policy arenas, from courts to state legislatures. The 2.2-million-member National Education Association teacher union, and other elements of the Big Education “Blob” like the National School Boards Association, have vowed to fight vouchers wherever they are proposed.
The NEA’s lawyers also have indicated they will seek to capitalize on provisions (known as Blaine Amendments) in many state constitutions that more explicitly bar aid to religion than does the federal Constitution. However, the Supreme Court’s reasoning that vouchers are aid to individuals rather than to institutions could prove to be controlling.
Ultimately, Zelman figures to add to the momentum behind a broad array of school-choice initiatives, not just vouchers. These include federal and state tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds, privatization of failing public schools as in Philadelphia, expansion of public charter schools, continued brisk growth of home schooling, and increases in private tutoring stimulated by parental choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act that goes into effect this fall.
The Berlin Wall that has held back pent-up demand for educational freedom in America could start falling fast now.
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