By JOE AUCIELLO
On June 27, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck a blow against an already ailing public school system when it upheld the voucher system in Cleveland.
Parents in Cleveland can receive up to $2250 in taxpayer money for private schools, and 96 percent of them send their children to religious schools. Opponents of the voucher program argued it violated the separation of church and state.
Vouchers, which allow parents to use public funds to send their children to parochial or private schools, are already used in Milwaukee, Florida, Vermont, and Maine. The court’s ruling does not mandate vouchers or overturn laws in 37 states that restrict or forbid any use of state funds to religious schools.
Nonetheless, the court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of the voucher system in Cleveland has far-reaching implications for the future of public education in the United States. Now it will be easier for state legislatures throughout the country to initiate voucher programs.
President Bush praised the Supreme Court’s decision as “a great victory,” and pledged to renew his campaign for vouchers, which he had supported as a candidate but ignored as president.
The Democratic Party has opposed vouchers, but prominent Democrats, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have recently urged the party to reverse its position.
Advocates of vouchers argue that these programs will provide educational opportunity for the poor and for minorities. Although referenda on vouchers in Michigan and California were soundly defeated in the 2000 elections, support for vouchers has been strong in the Black community.
The Wall Street Journal on June 28 cited the results of a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which showed that “blacks favored vouchers by 57%, and blacks with children favored them by 74%.”
There is no mystery why minorities and the poor look with hope to vouchers. The public schools provide the worst education to inner-city children and adolescents, which, in turn, leads to the lowest-paying jobs when jobs are available at all.
In Cleveland, for instance, schools had performed so poorly that the entire district was placed under court control. Only 10 percent of ninth graders earned acceptable levels on the proficiency exam; a majority of students dropped out altogether before graduation. No wonder, then, that parents demand immediate action and improvement.
The record so far on voucher programs is not especially encouraging. In December 2001 the Rand Corp. published a report that compared test scores of public school students and their peers enrolled in private schools under voucher programs. Almost no gains were noticeable for white students, and the results for Black students were contradictory and inconclusive.
But, on a large scale, vouchers provide only the illusion of educational opportunity and parental control. Most students will remain in the schools they are now attending.
Educational reform means improving the public education system that encompasses approximately 52 million American students. Vouchers are actually an elitist solution disguised in the language of democracy.
Vouchers divert state funds to private schools. Depriving under-performing, poor schools of financial and social resources is only likely to continue and accelerate a spiral of failure. Poor and minority students will continue to be the victims.
Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, stated, “Make no mistake, vouchers are not reform. If policymakers want to act on the issues that parents care most about they will address teacher quality, class size, making sure all schools have high expectations for every child, and providing the resources to help students succeed.”
To obtain those resources and to insure they are distributed equitably, public education needs to be financed on the federal level instead of by local property taxes. Funding public education through these taxes insures that the wealthiest-and whitest-communities will be able to sustain the best schools that will guarantee their children entry into the best colleges.
At most, vouchers may benefit a few at the expense of many. They are a worse solution to a bad problem. The necessary solution isn’t better schools for a lucky few but quality education for all.