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School Vouchers: Investing in Tomorrow

Next year, my daughter will be starting school. She will be attending our parish school, but our local public school would have been an equally good option, academically speaking. My husband and I understand how blessed we are to have such wonderful educational opportunities for our children. Not all parents are as fortunate.

On June 27, however, the U.S. Supreme Court gave parents with children in the Cleveland City School District a wider range of options concerning their children’s education. The court ruled 5-4 in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that the city’s voucher program is “entirely neutral with respect to religion.” The decision overturned a December 2000 ruling by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Schools, Students in Crisis

The Cleveland public-school system was recently declared to be in a state of “academic emergency” by the Ohio Department of Education. In the Supreme Court’s majority decision, Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited a March 1996 performance audit by the Cleveland City School District: “The district had failed to meet any of the 18 state standards for minimal acceptable performance. Only one in 10 ninth-graders could pass a basic proficiency examination, and students at all levels performed at a dismal rate compared with students in other Ohio public schools.”

The problems in Cleveland’s public schools are not new. In 1995, the entire school district was placed under state control after a federal district court declared a “crisis of magnitude” in the Cleveland Public School District.

Shortly after, the Ohio General Assembly passed a voucher program for Cleveland’s public schools. The program provides parents with a tuition subsidy of up to $2,250 per child for use at a parochial or private school.

Nationwide Issue

Vouchers provide an innovative solution by offering parents a choice of schools and prodding all schools—public and private—to improve because they now have to compete. Vouchers are a benefit not primarily to churches, which may run a school, but to parents and students. The model is the G.I. Bill; educational benefits go to veterans rather than to colleges.

There are currently three voucher programs in the United States: Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida. The recent Supreme Court ruling applies only to the Cleveland plan.

Milwaukee’s voucher program was challenged when, in 1995, it expanded to include religious schools. An appeals court ruled that the program violated the Wisconsin Constitution. The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned that ruling on appeal. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court was upheld.

One week after the Supreme Court’s decision, a Florida state court ruled that the state’s A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program was unconstitutional.

In his ruling, Florida Circuit Judge P. Kevin Davey said the state’s constitution was “clear and unambiguous” in terms of prohibiting public money from going to churches or other “sectarian institutions.”

Florida Governor Jeb Bush has said the state will appeal the ruling, which would allow the program to continue while the case is still being argued in the court system.

The battle for vouchers in the remaining 47 states will need to be addressed on a state-by-state basis.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?

The issue of vouchers is not an easy one. A recent Associated Press poll showed Americans are in favor of vouchers—until they realize it would mean a decrease in funding for public schools.

According to the nationwide poll, people favor vouchers to help send children to private or parochial schools by a margin of 51-40. When asked if they still support the idea if it means less money for public schools, respondents are opposed by a 2-1 margin.

Those arguing against voucher programs say they undermine the public-school system.

Dominican Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, secretary for education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, disputes that claim. “This decision in no way threatens the viability of the public-school fact, I believe that this decision will help to provide the impetus for obtaining a quality education for all school-age children.”

Those in favor argue vouchers are needed because of the failings of the public-school systems.

So are vouchers the answer to what ails our educational systems? Hardly. But they are a start. Voucher programs, such as that in Cleveland, provide parents with the power of choice and the tools to make decisions about their children’s education.

And, hopefully, the voucher programs will wake up public-school systems that for too long have either maintained the status quo—or fallen below—when it comes to our children’s education.

Providing children with a solid education is one of a parent’s most important tasks. Education is the basis for societal and personal change. If we do not provide our children with a quality education, we are denying them opportunities for their future.

Vouchers are a small, but important, step on the road to giving parents
the power to ensure that their child receives a quality education—
either in a public or private school. Their future—our future—depends on it.—S.H.B.

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