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.
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
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
system...in 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
either in a public or private school. Their future—our future—depends