Public Money & Private Schools

By Fletcher, Michael | The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Public Money & Private Schools


Fletcher, Michael, The New Crisis


The Supreme Court's ruling on tuition vouchers is a boost for the school choice movement. But the opposition insists that putting public school students in private school classrooms won't fly.

Just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Cleveland's school voucher program does not cross the constitutional line separating church and state, President George W. Bush hailed the decision as the dawn of a new era of civil rights. The president called the high court's June 27 ruling, which upholds publicly funded scholarships to students who attend private and parochial schools, as important as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed state-sponsored school segregation.

"The Supreme Court in 1954 declared that our nation cannot have two education systems," Bush said in a July speech in Cleveland extolling the court ruling. "[In the school voucher case] what's notable and important is that the Court declared that our nation would not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and [one] for those who can't."

Bush also called the court's ruling, "a decisive victory for school vouchers." Just hours after it was handed down, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) revived a proposal to establish a pilot voucher program in the District of Columbia. But despite Bush's declaration and Armey's quick action, opposition to public tuition vouchers for use at private schools remains solid. Last year, it led President Bush to abandon a voucher proposal of his own.

Such opposition to vouchers on a national and state level has led most analysts to come to a conclusion very different from the president's: For now, the court's decision simply opens the door for more political and legal battles, primarily in state legislatures, over the use of public money for private education.

It is an opinion shared by those on both sides of the issue. Lawrence C. Patrick III, president and CEO of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) agreed with Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, which opposes them, who said: "[The Supreme Court decision] will not lead to a proliferation of voucher programs around the country, but a proliferation of voucher battles."

In August, just weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, a Florida judge struck down a school voucher program, ruling that it violates a prohibition in that state's constitution barring public money from flowing to religious institutions. Gov. Jeb Bush (R) immediately announced that the state would appeal the decision. The governor's action allows the state to continue to send students to private and parochial schools while the case moves through the courts.

REDEFINING EDUCATION

Whatever else may follow, the Supreme Court's school voucher decision will be a major force shaping the debate over public education for years to come. On one side are teachers' unions and civil rights groups, the most vociferous voucher opponents, who say such programs drain resources from and threaten public schools. Improving the public schools, which enroll 90 percent of the nation's school children, is the only way to affect the life chances of the majority of poor students, voucher opponents say.

"Make no mistake, vouchers are not reform," says Bob Chase, immediate past president of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest teachers union. "If policymakers want to act on the issues that parents care most about - the kitchen table discussions about education opportunity for their children - they will have to address teacher quality, class size, making sure all schools have high expectations for every child and providing the resources to help students succeed."

On the other side is an odd coalition of political conservatives and the mostly young African American activists who insist that vouchers help level the academic playing field by giving students trapped in bad schools some of the educational options already enjoyed by the more affluent. …

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