Vouchers give children a chance

October 22, 2001|By Matthew Ladner

AUSTIN - The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on what will undoubtedly be the most closely watched and most controversial case of the year - the constitutionality of school vouchers.

The case involves the Cleveland Scholarship and Tuition Program, which the Ohio legislature created in 1995 to permit low-income families in the state's lowest-performing school district to choose a public or private school.

The case has the potential to settle the lingering question of whether school voucher programs like Cleveland's violate separation of church and state.

Some opponents of school choice feel economically threatened, first among them officials of teachers' unions because of concern they would be held accountable for the poor test results in Cleveland's schools. Recently released test results revealed that 66 percent of Cleveland fourth-graders would have had to repeat a grade if they had been forced to meet the "reading guarantee" - a program the legislature abandoned.

Cleveland's children deserve better, and multiple academic evaluations of the Cleveland program show that the children are making academic gains. Continuing to blindly send money into public school systems such as Cleveland's, with its sky-high dropout and illiteracy rates, simply perpetuates the cycle of poverty that is common in our cities.

Other school choice opponents are motivated by an ideological hostility to religion. There is a crucial difference between not wanting your children to attend private religious schools and arguing that you don't want anyone else's children to attend them.

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The founding fathers wrote the amendment in reference to the British government's establishment of the Church of England as an official state religion.

Choice opponents have interpreted this establishment clause to mean that any sort of taxpayer assistance for private religious schools represents the establishment of religion.

Choice supporters have argued successfully that giving parents the ability to choose between public and private schools does not represent the establishment of a particular religion because parents are free to choose between non-religious and religious schools.

That such a program establishes a particular religion, therefore, is not true. The Cleveland program no more establishes a state religion than the GI Bill does when it allows servicemen to choose between state universities and private religious schools such as the University of Notre Dame or when low-income parents can use state vouchers to choose church-based day care centers.

Studies have shown that children participating in the Cleveland voucher program are much more likely to attend racially integrated schools than public school children. Surprised? Don't be. People who could afford to move to Cleveland's suburbs are long gone from what is now a highly racially segregated district.

Sixty percent of the public school students in the Cleveland metropolitan area attend schools that are either 90 percent white or 90 percent minority. Private schools in the area are much better integrated because they ignore racially segregated housing patterns. Seventy-five percent of the children in the program are from minorities with average annual family incomes of $16,000.

These children would be forced to leave relatively integrated private schools to return to a highly segregated and highly ineffective school district. Cleveland's children deserve much more than a court-mandated "re-segregation order" forcing them into dysfunctional and racially isolated schools. Neither narrow interests nor ideologies should stand in the way of their futures.

Matthew Ladner is policy director of Children First America, a nonprofit organization in Arkansas and Texas that works with philanthropists to create privately financed programs to provide vouchers to economically disadvantaged K-12 students.

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