Skip to main content /POLITICS

A victory for vouchers

The Supreme Court upholds school choice. But will its decision be the final word on education reform?

A victory for vouchers

By Jodie Morse
With reporting by Steve Barnes/Little Rock, Andrea Sachs/New York and Fran Stewart/Cleveland

It was 10:30 a.m. Thursday, and Ray Haynes, Republican state senator from Riverside, Calif., was at his computer tapping out one of the myriad resolutions railing against the previous day's court-of-appeals decision outlawing the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a news bulletin popped up in his e-mail In box: the U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld the constitutionality of a school-voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, that uses taxpayer money to pay for private and parochial schools. "I called in my staff who were working on the pledge situation and said, 'You really have to get going on vouchers right now. This is literally what we've been waiting for,'" says Haynes. By day's end, he and his crew had drafted a bill that would grant parents in California a tuition voucher of about $4,000 to pay for their child's education.

You wouldn't know it from the pledge panic gripping the TV talk-show circuit, but the 98-page decision handed down by the high court just hours before it adjourned for the term was the legal verdict of true import for religion and schools in the U.S. At issue was Cleveland's pioneering school-voucher program, which gives more than 3,700 of the city's 75,000 students each a voucher worth up to $2,250 to attend private schools. With more than 96% of those students enrolling in religious schools, voucher opponents contended the system flouted the Constitution's church-state separation. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority in the 5-to-4 decision, affirmed that Cleveland's vouchers are "entirely neutral with respect to religion" because parents retain a "true private choice" of where and how to educate their kids.


The constitutional question settled, pro-voucher legislators like Haynes immediately set out to pump political life into the moribund education-reform movement. Most statehouses are recessed for the summer, but lawmakers in a dozen states are already talking of drafting new voucher bills or dusting off legislation that had languished in earlier sessions. It took Republican Congressman Dick Armey only a few hours to introduce legislation authorizing a voucher plan for poor students in Washington, D.C. And voucher proponents promised more bills in more states in the coming months.

Also ahead are more court skirmishes. Dozens of states have constitutions more restrictive than the federal charter. While some of them contain blanket assurances of "universal access" to public education, three dozen have another legal hurdle: the so-called Blaine Amendment, added in a late-19th century burst of anti-Catholic bigotry, which expressly bans the transfer of public money to religious schools. On the day of the Supreme Court decision, the Institute for Justice, the conservative legal group that defended the Cleveland program, swiftly announced plans to litigate the Blaine clauses.

The next test will be the nation's first and only statewide voucher program, created by Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 1999, which gives tuition grants to students in chronically failing schools. With just 50 students currently receiving vouchers and only a few hundred signed on for the fall, the Florida program is still minuscule. But many of the same teachers' unions and civil-liberties groups that opposed the Cleveland suit will contend in hearings beginning next week that Florida's constitution--in language similar to that of the Blaine Amendment--prohibits state money from flowing "directly or indirectly ... [to] any church, sect, or religious denomination." The argument remains something of a gamble. State judges are legally bound to abide by their own constitutions, but they would certainly think twice about appearing to cross the Supreme Court.

The reformers face other hurdles too. Currently only Cleveland, Florida and Milwaukee, Wis., have voucher programs. In 2000, voters in Michigan and California trounced statewide voucher initiatives. Since then, 26 other states have voted down voucher legislation. Like many other Republicans, President Bush has shied away from vouchers and lately thrown his support behind school-choice plans like tax credits, which mainly benefit middle-class families.

Money, or the lack of it, is another obstacle: education budgets are so depleted that some states are cutting back to a four-day school week. "Money will be a big problem for state legislators," says Josiah Pettersen of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "In a lot of people's minds, pushing a voucher program will be viewed as taking money away from kids." Lest his constituents get the wrong idea, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican and ardent school-choice supporter, issued a press release minutes after the Supreme Court decision resolving that the "focus in Arkansas needs to be on improving our public schools." Those schools are so strapped for cash that Huckabee just slashed a planned teacher-salary increase from $3,000 to less than $600.

The biggest unknown with vouchers remains the most persistent one: Do they boost student achievement? Parochial schools are not bound to administer the same standardized exams as their public counterparts, but reliable research has, at best, documented only microscopic gains in student achievement. In the wake of the ruling, centrists have begun calling on private and parochial schools to adhere to statewide standards. This week the middle-of-the-road Progressive Policy Institute will release a paper calling for just such "accountable choice."

Still, there are voices like those of Cassandra Galloway, a Head Start teacher from Pensacola, Fla. Her son Jonathan, 13, got A's and B's at his public elementary school two years ago but could hardly sound out a word when she asked him to read aloud. Today he happily attends Sacred Heart Cathedral School on a voucher. "His attitude toward school has changed," says his mother. "Now he's bringing home those big Harry Potter books. He didn't really like himself at his old school, but now he's in love with himself." Such experiences add up to a powerful endorsement--and one that politicians may find hard to resist.




Back to the top