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 Project21@nationalcenter.org,
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
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
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!
# # #
(Darryn "Dutch" Martin
is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American
leadership network Project 21. Comments many be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author,
and not necessarily those of Project 21.