School Choice Battle Reaches Critical Mass

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The nation is rightfully captivated with the new war on terrorism and the Taliban's threats of a Jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. if we respond militarily to the atrocious attacks of 9-11. Meanwhile, there is another battle brewing involving religion that is receiving considerably less attention.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the Cleveland school choice system, setting the stage for what could be a groundbreaking decision on the constitutionality of all programs - including programs in Milwaukee and Florida - that help parents of children trapped in failing schools choose another school, even if it happens to have a religious founding.

Yet while this fight is ostensibly over the specifics of the Cleveland school choice program, depending on the breath of the court's decision, the impact of the ruling could stretch far beyond school choice to many government interactions with religious institutions. If the court rejects all uses of public money to help children attend religious schools, other school choice programs around the country will be in jeopardy. In addition, it could impact the government's ability to grant public funds to charities that perform a social welfare function, as proposed under President Bush's faith-based initiative.

The high court has passed up several previous cases, notably one in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld Milwaukee's school choice program. The Cleveland program was ripe for review, however, because it had been overturned on narrow grounds. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the limited amount given to each child, $2,250, made it difficult to use the vouchers at schools other than private religious ones. Opponents of the program pointed out that more than 90 percent of students who get the funds attend religious schools, as proof that the program was unconstitutional. Solicitor General Ted Olson argued in a friend of the court brief that the Cleveland program uses neutral, secular criteria to distribute the funds and lets parents make the choice on whether religious schools get the money.

The Cleveland court case is the latest in a series of school choice battles over the past several years. In Milwaukee, by far the largest and most successful choice program in the country with an estimated enrollment of almost 10,000 students this year has undergone attacks in both the courtroom and the legislature. After receiving the green light from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Milwaukee program had to fight for its existence in the state legislature, after opponents sought to drain much of the program's funding.

The choice program's supporters, such as former Milwaukee school superintendent Howard Fuller, were able to save the program after successfully refuting many of its opponents' claims. Fuller and Kaleem Caire, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, cite evidence that rebuts several of the most often repeated myths about tax funded school voucher programs in a new book published by the NCPA.

Wisconsin State Rep. Christine Sinicki argued that "choice schools are picking and choosing the children they want, but public schools cannot turn away anyone who comes to their door." American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman went so far as to say, "In Milwaukee, thousands of eligible students didn't participate in the choice program because they couldn't find schools that would accept them."

Fuller pointed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which reported that, "no student has formally complained of being denied admission to any choice school. There also appears to have been no such claims from a parent or family in Ohio."

Sam Carmen, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association pushed the idea that "Voucher programs in the city of Milwaukee adversely affect schools and class sizes are increasing while programs like art, music and physical education are being reduced."

Yet the truth is, as Fuller explains, that education budgets in Milwaukee and Cleveland have both increased significantly. In Milwaukee, enrollment grew 8 percent, real spending increased 29 percent, state aid jumped 55 percent and the tax levy dropped by one-third.

The National Education Association alleged, "Every serious study of voucher plans concludes that vouchers don't improve student achievement." Actual research, meanwhile, refutes this. In fact several studies found statistically significant gains in the scores of voucher students.

Opponents of school choice often portray it as something experimental or new - something to be feared. But the only thing new about school choice is the struggle of low-income Americans to get it. The Supreme Court should find that it is not unconstitutional for those with the humblest of means to enjoy the same choices available to the rest.