Supreme Court Unchains Schoolhouse Door

Commentary by Pete du Pont

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court unambiguously cleared the way for children across the country that are trapped in consistently failing schools to seek new educational opportunities.

Fittingly, the ruling came one week before our nation celebrates Independence Day. While all Americans will celebrate a reinvigorated sense of freedom since September 11, parents with children enrolled in poorly performing public schools across the country can now celebrate a different kind of freedom: The freedom to escape the shackles of failing schools.

Cleveland's six-year-old school choice program provides school vouchers to children from low-income families so that they may opt out of the city's failing public schools. The legal challenge of this program was prompted by the fact that most of the children who accepted the opportunity to leave their failing public school, now attend private, religious schools. Proponents of the program successfully argued that this was a result of the fact that only private schools had stepped up to the plate to rescue children from failing schools - no public school chose to participate.

It's important to note that the Cleveland program wasn't created on a whim. At the time of the program's inception, the Cleveland public schools were among the worst performing schools in the country. State and local leaders had tried to clean up Cleveland schools for years, by pouring in additional money, allowing more flexibility and trying new programs and methods. Nothing worked.

The question in Cleveland was - and it is a question many school districts across the country face today - what do you do with schools who cannot or will not improve, even when given the resources, money and flexibility to do so? You have to do something to force those schools to reform, or at least protect the students who must attend them.

Today, there are only two other choice programs that allow public dollars to flow into the hands of needy families - Milwaukee and Florida. These three programs provide those from the humblest of means, the same opportunities every other American previously enjoyed.

The Supreme Court decision takes on special importance when taken in context of the "No Child Left Behind Act" that Congress passed last year. This education reform requires states to test every child in every year in grades 3 through 8. Parents, school administrators and state leaders will have unprecedented new information about the performance of their neighborhood schools.

Now that the Supreme Court has resolved the constitutionality of school choice programs, state officials can use the new test data, to determine which schools are passing and which are failing, and actually provide a way out for students who are trapped in the schools that consistently fail year after year. And the Cleveland program provides a working model for how choice can work in a responsible, constitutional way.

On a lighter note, it's going to be interesting to see how much time and money the teachers unions spend to update all of their anti-choice promotional materials. After all, every publication, flier or position paper about school choice panned the constitutionality of choice programs. Now they will have to find another falsehood to use as their primary argument against school choice programs.