December 20, 2000

December 20, 2000 | Commentary on Education

Vouchers and the Court of Public Opinion

In a week when all eyes were on the courts, a critical decision was handed down that had nothing to do with the Oval Office - and everything to do with the educational options some of our nation's least advantaged children enjoy.

By finding Cleveland's voucher program unconstitutional on church-state grounds, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals cast a cloud over the 3,800 children from low-income Cleveland families who have been using vouchers for four years now to enroll their children in the private school of their choice.

In striking down Cleveland's program, the appeals court reached back to a 1973 New York case that barred the use of vouchers at religious schools, ruling that vouchers constitute an "establishment of religion" that violates the First Amendment. But in doing so, the court ignored a more recent line of precedent suggesting that private school-choice programs such as Cleveland's are constitutional because public dollars flow directly to individuals (parents and their school-aged children) and only indirectly to institutions (private schools).

By literally making Cleveland's voucher program a federal issue, school-choice opponents are taking quite a chance. Simply put, the decision to fight any private school-choice program anywhere - no matter how small or circumscribed - runs the risk of having the U.S. Supreme Court validate the voucher idea not just in the Cleveland case, but for every city and state. Clint Bolick, the attorney for the parents in the Cleveland case, clearly relishes the chance to take the issue to the high court, saying of the latest setback: "This is the test case we've been waiting for to remove the constitutional cloud from school choice once and for all."

If the fate of Cleveland's voucher program stands in legal limbo, what's already clear is the place where constitutional issues and the court of public opinion converge: The plight of the families being helped by the Cleveland choice program.

For parents like Johnietta McGrady, a single mother of two grade-school children who is also raising her two grandsons on Cleveland's rough-and-tumble East Side, Cleveland's choice program has proved an educational life preserver. Working two part-time jobs as a Head Start dietician and school crossing guard, McGrady is categorical: "Without vouchers, there's no way we could do it."

Likewise Roberta Kitchen, a single mother of five foster children, who used vouchers to enroll her two youngest children in private schools. One of Kitchen's foster daughters came to her as a street-savvy 3-year-old, with razor-sharp survival skills that left her ill-prepared for a school environment. Kitchen's ability to use a voucher to enroll her daughter in a non-religious private school has transformed her school experience.

As Kitchen puts it: "Private school is what's giving my children a chance. I have invested too much to let [the public schools] turn my children into something that has a hole in it." Aware of the possibility that the court might pull choice out from under her, Kitchen has explored the idea of taking a second job to meet her family's tuition bills. "Or," she says, "I'll quit my job and home school them." As for the church-state argument advanced by school-choice opponents, she says, "it just seems to be another way to hold back the people who need the help the most."

For parents like Johnietta McGrady and Roberta Kitchen, the voucher issue is not about grand constitutional questions, nor is it even simply an issue of public versus private schools. It's about parents' ability to choose the right school for their child - a right that millions of more advantaged American families take for granted.

Daniel McGroarty, a former Bradley fellow with The Heritage Foundation, is author of the book "Trinnietta Gets a Chance; Six Families and Their School Choice Experience" (January 2001, The Heritage Foundation).

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