Just before the holidays last year, the aspirations of thousands of Cleveland schoolchildren were put on hold when federal judge Solomon Oliver ruled that a Cleveland school choice program was a violation of the separation of church and state and was therefore unconstitutional.
That's a shame because Cleveland's four-year-old voucher program gives needy families with children in kindergarten through sixth grade up to $2,500 in tuition vouchers.
At issue is that most of the 3,543 children enrolled in the Cleveland program are in religious schools. Oliver said that because nearly all the 56 participating schools were religion-based, the program had "the effect of advancing religion through government-supported religious indoctrination." While Oliver ordered the program shut down, he agreed to let it continue until an appeal could be heard. School choice supporters said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
And they should, as Oliver's decision raised more questions than it answered.
One question: If the Cleveland school choice program violates the separation of church and state, what would Oliver say about similar programs of long standing such as the G.I. Bill and federal Pell Grants that people use to attend the public or private universities of their choice? Oliver's contradictory decision highlights the complexities of school choice programs, where families are given vouchers for state funds to spend at a school of their choice.
First proposed by economist Milton Friedman after the United States Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in 1954 in Brown v. the Board of Education, "school choice" was used by white parents to circumvent Brown and send their children to all-white private schools. That practice was ruled unconstitutional in the late 1950s, but the concept of school choice would forever change education. And it did in 1989, when African-American activists, parents and politicians pushed forward a voucher plan of their own in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It remains the only publicly-financed voucher program in the nation and has withstood an onslaught of legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union, teachers unions, People for the American Way and the NAACP. The Cleveland program was modeled after Milwaukee's. Florida is also embarking on a statewide school choice program.
Teachers unions, civil libertarians and many, if not most, liberals see school choice as a diabolical plot to destroy the public school system. Political conservatives, on the other hand, see it as a way to improve public schools through competition.
The battle for school choice points up the failure of the public school system in urban America. Parents in these school systems are tired of the vast array of excuses used to justify school failures - such as the broken home theory, racism or social-economic status. These parents don't want to hear excuses and they want to see results. School choice gives them an option.
A recent Gallup poll showed that people surveyed favored school choice 51 to 47 percent. Among African-Americans, support for school choice is off the charts, in spite of opposition from most black leaders (many of them, coincidentally, send their own children to private schools) and the NAACP. A 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank, found that 60% of blacks in total favored school vouchers, while 70 percent of young blacks between the ages of 26 and 35 favor vouchers.
Blacks supporting school choice see it as a way to save a generation of black students now attending public schools with 30 to 40 percent dropout rates and collective grade point averages below 2.0. The push for school choice among blacks can be seen in the new book Not Yet Free at Last by Mikel Holt, the editor of the black weekly Milwaukee Community Journal newspaper.
Holt compares the battle for school choice in Milwaukee and the nation with the battle to desegregate schools in the 1950s. But while the battle to desegregate the schools was fought against Southern segregationists, Holt writes that the battle for choice will be fought against liberal special interest groups like the People for the American Way and teachers unions. "While condemning school choice, the left offers no real solutions for the abysmal failure of the public school system and the harm it has caused millions of minority and poor children," writes Holt. He has a point.
While it isn't perfect, school choice is the only certain solution
that will break up the educational status quo and ensure greater
educational opportunities are available for the people who need
them most. If this happens, then maybe the public schools that
aren't working will be able to reform themselves for all.
(Lee Hubbard, an associate of Project 21, is a journalist who
writes on urban and national affairs. He can be reached at [email protected].)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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