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Jewish World Review July 1, 2002 / 21 Tamuz, 5762

John H. Fund

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Opening the Schoolhouse Door: The politicians can't stop school choice now | The broadly written Supreme Court ruling upholding a school choice program in Cleveland has been a long time coming. It was back in 1983 that the Education Department issued its "Nation at Risk" report warning of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in the schools. Two months later, the Supreme Court opened a first crack in the door of school choice when it declared that states could allow taxpayers with children in private schools to deduct tuition and other expenses from state income taxes. The ruling represented the high court's final and complete retreat from the suspicion it once displayed towards school choice and the role religious schools can play in it.

As with its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools, the justices were clearly mindful of the grim reality that too many of the nation's public schools are failing to provide an adequate education for the most vulnerable children. A 50% increase in real (inflation-adjusted) spending per pupil in the last two decades has failed to deliver results. Since 1983, over 13 million children have reached the 12th grade not knowing how to read at a basic level. Over 27 million have reached their senior year unable to do basic math. And those numbers don't count the 30% of students who drop out of school before the 12th grade.

The court surprised many observers by writing a broadly written opinion that gathered the full support of five justices. Unlike in the Mitchell decision in 2000 that upheld the use of federal funds for public entities lending education materials to religious schools, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor did not dissent in part from yesterday's ruling upholding school choice. This means that the opinion can be used as binding case law. The canard that school choice programs are an impermissible breach of the wall of separation between church and state has now been exploded.

Indeed, the court's majority used its opinion to tweak the dissenting justices for their fear of school choice. In response to Justice Stephen Breyer's use of the specters of "divisiveness" and "religious strife" to bolster his view that Cleveland's choice program was unconstitutional, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: "It is unclear exactly what sort of principle Justice Breyer has in mind, considering that the program has ignited no 'divisiveness' or 'strife' other than this litigation."

The court's ruling will have both practical and political effects. Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute predicts the decision "will affect the tenor of education policy for years to come." There is little doubt it will embolden states such as Colorado and Texas to launch bolder school reforms, including targeted vouchers but also possibly tax credits and an expansion of charter schools. Other states may now modify or repeal their constitutions to strip out 19th century Blaine Amendments, which restrict aid to religious schools.

What the court's decision will not do is alter the implacable opposition of teachers unions to most forms of choice.

In 2000, Robert Chanin, general counsel of the National Education Association, warned that no matter what the Supreme Court ruled, the union would challenge choice "on whatever grounds are available to us--from lofty principles . . . to 'Mickey Mouse' procedural issues." Up to now, Mr. Chanin and his allies have been winning.

Minority voters are the most supportive of private options in education, but most won't vote for candidates on that basis, limiting the appeal of the issue to conservative politicians. Meanwhile, many suburban voters remain ignorant of school choice, complacently believing their local schools are wonderful or falsely fearing the changes that school choice could bring.

But targeted school choice programs should nevertheless flourish. Today, almost every state uses public funds to send special-education students to private schools if the public schools can't address their needs. A dozen states will, at the request of principals, transfer disruptive students to private schools with strict disciplinary programs. Expanding those programs could be popular, and could force public schools to improve their own performance to compete.

"Candidates of all kinds will be much more willing to talk about dramatic school reform such as the Bush proposal to give families tax credits if they feel compelled to leave a failing public school," says Ralph Reed, chairman of Georgia's Republican Party. In intellectual circles one can expect to see some strange new respect for the lonely band that championed school choice before it was cool: the Bradley and Olin Foundations, the Milton Friedman Foundation, the Institute for Justice, businessman Pat Rooney and former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller.

The education establishment, which Bill Bennett once called the "blob," still dominates the political arena. But Thursday's decision makes its hold on power a little more tenuous.

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06/06/02: It's time for President Bush to stand up to California's senators
05/16/02: A Court Intrigue: Procedural funny business in a racial-preference case
05/14/02: Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
05/09/02: Newark, Zimbabwe!?
05/02/02: Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools
04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
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05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
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05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
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03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund