After the Voucher Wars, Poor School Kids in Cleveland Now Have A Chance, by Darryn “Dutch” Martin


A New Visions Commentary paper published December 2003 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, E-Mail [email protected], Web Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

As a product of Cleveland’s public school system, I can attest to its dismal state.

To say that poor, inner-city students in Cleveland were not receiving a quality education would be like saying Michael Jordan is good at basketball. The school district couldn’t meet any of the 18 performance standards set for it, and only one in ten 9th graders could pass a basic proficiency exam. In 1995, three years after I graduated from high school, a federal judge placed the system in state receivership.

In 1996, the state legislature created the Cleveland Scholarship and Tuition Program. For families that want out of the public schools, the program provides scholarship vouchers that can pay up to 90 percent of the tuition at private, magnet and other schools in Cleveland and its suburbs. It also provides tutoring for students remaining in the public schools.

While studies by Harvard University and the Ohio Department of Education show the program has helped raise student test scores and even fostered increased racial integration, a coalition of opponents led by the teachers’ unions challenged it in court on the grounds that paying for religious school tuition violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cleveland’s voucher program, giving a huge victory to poor students longing for a quality education and poor parents who want their offspring to have a chance at a better future.

The decision notes: “The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice.”

In Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle Over School Choice, attorney Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice recounts his 12-year roller coaster ride to give disadvantaged schoolchildren a chance at a better future. That struggle began with the nation’s first school choice program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1990 and culminated with the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Zellman. He shows how teachers’ unions time and again threw up legal challenges to oppose school choice even though union members often enroll their own children in private schools.

Polly Williams, a Wisconsin state legislator and voucher proponent who bristled at the nerve of those who thought school choice should only be available to those who can afford it, came up with a plan to fight back that Bolick recounts with amusement: “[S]he announced that she would sponsor legislation making it a condition of employment that public school teachers send their children to public schools. The response was death threats on Polly’s home answering machine. Tongue in cheek, I had to advise Polly that her proposal would be unconstitutional… But the point about the union’s hypocrisy was brilliantly made.”

Bolick notes that the federal court injunction against the Cleveland Scholarship and Tuition Program, had it been allowed to stand, would have snatched 4,000 scholarship students out of quality charter and magnet schools and placed them back into failing public schools. He calls the teachers’ union support for the injunction “a strategic miscalculation of titanic significance.” The High Court’s ruling was a big thumb to the eye of school choice opponents – most notably the politically powerful National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They still seem willing to condemn poor – and mostly minority – children to educational cesspools just to maintain their status quo stranglehold on public education.

While Bolick uses Voucher Wars to tell how the war for school choice was won, he doesn’t neglect to point out that there is still much more to be done.

In the meantime, however, score one for the little guy!

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(Darryn “Dutch” Martin is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments many be sent to [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21

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