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Jewish World Review June 22, 2000 /19 Sivan, 5760

Tony Snow

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Consumer Reports

Does the Consitution mandate lousy, unsafe schools? -- WITHIN THE NEXT FEW DAYS, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati will decide an important question: Does the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution compel low-income families to send their children to lousy, unsafe schools?

Teachers unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and related groups say: Yes. Kids must stay in awful institutions, rather than being subjected to even a whisper of religious discourse.

Thousands of parents in Cleveland disagree. They have signed up for a program that lets them choose their kids' schools.

A federal court ordered up the initiative five years ago because the Cleveland system was unconscionably terrible -- and still is. Last year, the Cleveland Consolidated School District failed each of the state's 18 performance requirements and flunked all of Ohio's 27 performance standards. Only 11.6 percent of the district's ninth-graders passed basic proficiency tests (compared to 55.6 percent statewide), and less than a third of eligible enrollees (32.6 percent) graduated from high school.

At the time of the original receivership order, the system could not account for a $40 million emergency loan given by the state, and the district's debt stood at $129 million and rising. Educational officials refused to sell 4 million square feet of property deemed "excessive" by the court and wouldn't shut down as many as 25 buildings described as "beyond repair." More recently, someone found a storage space packed with computers that never managed to make it to classrooms.

In response to this record, Ohio legislators produced a plan laced with incentives to send kids to public schools. The state would spend $7,097 per student for magnet schools and $4,518 per pupil for "community" or "charter" schools (private institutions chartered by the state). It would give parents a fraction of that funding (a maximum of $2,250) for private-school tuition.

Last year, 73.5 percent of the participating families picked magnet schools, 9.5 percent chose community schools and 17 percent selected private schools.

Here's where things get fun. Just before the beginning of the school year, Federal Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. struck down the plan because 96 percent of the private-school children planned to attend religious institutions. He concluded that the school-choice program improperly advanced religion and thus inflicted "irreparable harm" on the children.

Parents didn't see it that way. When he issued his decree, the Cleveland Plain Dealer could find only two children who decided to return to the public schools. The other 3,799 stayed put. Fortunately for them, the U.S. Supreme Court quickly suspended Oliver's order for the duration of the school year, and asked the court of appeals to take up the case.

Oliver slammed people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Families in the voucher program had average incomes of $15,769 -- barely half the poverty level -- and an incredible 68.2 percent of the children came from single-parent homes. They weren't seeking salvation, just knowledge. An Indiana University poll of participants found that 96.4 percent listed education as an important consideration, and 95 percent worried about school safety. Religion ranked dead last in the factors of concern.

In an upcoming book from the Heritage Foundation, "Given a Choice: Six Parents Speak Out on School Choice and the Difference It Has Made for Their Children," author Daniel McGroarty interviews Cleveland parent Roberta Kitchen. She "inherited" five children 15 years ago when her goddaughter, a drug addict, dropped them off one day -- and never returned.

Kitchen has been a smart shopper. Last year, she sent children to four different schools -- private and public -- having selected the institutions that best fit the children's educational needs.

She's "angry" at would-be helpers from the ACLU and People for the American Way, and she finds their arguments "insulting." "Why would anybody force parents to send their children to schools like that?" she asks.

Kitchen hopes to get good news June 21, when Federal Judges Eugene Siler, James Ryan and Eric Clay pass judgment on the choice plan. But she also remains defiant: "If they rule it out ... I won't send them back to die. We'll lose them. That's a kind of death. ... You've got this environment that has so much lacking. There's so much unhappiness there. ... I don't want to send my kids back to that. I just refuse."

So we return to the original issue: Does the Constitution require poor families to endure separate-but-unequal treatment? The educational establishment says yes. The courts in half a dozen states say no. Judges Siler, Ryan and Clay will have to break the tie.

As they mull their options, they might want to ask whether they really want to tell Roberta Kitchen to get a third job, so her children can get the same kind of education as, say, the children of federal judges.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate