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Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2002 / 14 Adar, 5762

Betsy Hart

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The case for school choice -- THE United States Supreme Court heard one of the most important church-state cases of the last 10 years this past Wednesday. And an early reading of the justices' questions during the oral arguments over a "school choice" initiative suggest the court may be disposed to grant a constitutional OK to the notion of parents using government education vouchers to send their children to private schools - including religious schools.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the court addressed the school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. A government program there gives poor kids in demonstrably lousy public schools a voucher, or coupon, for $2,250. It which can be used at the public or private school of their choice.

But most of the private-school choices available to the kids right now are Catholic schools. So, per usual, the cry has gone up that this violates "separation of church and state." But it's hard to believe that's really the issue. After all, nobody is forcing children out of public schools or into religious ones, and to be eligible for the program religious schools may not use religious tests in determining admission.

Instead, this is a desperate argument of a failing public school bureaucracy terrified of losing its monopoly control. My own children attend public school. A good one. But one of the reasons it's good is that we live in an area with many outstanding private schools, religious and secular, and with many parents who can afford a "choice" as to where they send their children. For my public school to keep its students (and its state funds) it had better perform, and it does.

This isn't just an anecdotal anomaly. Harvard's Caroline Hoxby, who focused on the long-running Milwaukee, Wisconsin, voucher system, showed in a peer-reviewed study that vouchers improve the very public schools where students are eligible for them, and the more students eligible for the vouchers, the greater the improvement.

Nor is the issue money. Cleveland spends some $8,000 per year to educate its students, a figure well above the Ohio average. Yet in Cleveland's public schools, which like most large cities serve mostly minority students, only one-third of its fourth graders are at grade level in math, science and reading. This is consistent with a study by the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reports that two-thirds of black and Hispanic fourth-graders are functionally illiterate. (That's twice the rate for whites.) In effect and perhaps most appalling, as the Wall Street Journal points out, "with whites having exercised their own choice by moving out to the suburbs. . .the Cleveland school system has essentially re-segregated itself."

The debacle that is Cleveland's public school system led to its voucher program in the first place, when in 1995 a federal court pronounced the city's education system a disaster zone and forced the state of Ohio to take it over.

Giving poor children vouchers became part of the rescue plan.

Only, no sooner had that happened than the education bureaucracy pronounced itself outraged, outraged, that - gasp, horror - many parents were choosing religious schools for their children. (That is the main private option available until the Supreme Court decides, in effect, whether the market for private schools in Cleveland will be viable.) The New York Times - and don't waste any time wondering if the children of that editorial board are sent to inner-city public schools - breathlessly panted that if the Supreme Court sides with Ohio, "it would mark a serious retreat from this nation's historic commitment to maintaining a wall between government and religion." But we're hardly talking Armageddon here. For starters, the goal of the Cleveland voucher system is educational excellence, not religious teaching. Further, it's the parents that choose the school, not government, just as soldiers under the GI bill following World War II could choose to attend a religious college with their government "vouchers."

In any event, this case is not about maintaining a "wall of separation of church and state" (a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution). It's about improving education, particularly for America's least served poor and minority communities, and allowing religious schools to compete for a student's voucher in a marketplace full of educational options. In fact, to exclude such schools from that marketplace would be to discriminate against religion, and that really would violate the First Amendment.

Thankfully, a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court seemed to grasp that argument yesterday, even if - no surprise - those who claim to passionately oppose vouchers on "church and state" grounds didn't. Either way, the court's decision will be a landmark one. It's expected to be handed down in June.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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