Ever since the 1954 Brown decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools, various popular movements have upheld a vision of public schools as essential to democracy and have demanded legal protections for those previously marginalized--from Title IX prohibitions against gender-based discrimination, to the right to a bilingual education, to the inclusion of students with disabilities in public school classrooms, to the demand that public schools respect the rights of gay and lesbian students. On February 20 the Supreme Court took up a case that could lead to an about-face on this half-century of struggle.
The Justices heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland in which tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools. Roughly 4,300 Cleveland students currently receive vouchers, and 99.4 percent of them attend religious schools. The case's significance goes beyond vouchers to whether public education will be replaced by a marketplace system in which the role of the public is limited to making an individual "choice" to attend a particular school. The case also holds enormous potential to further George W. Bush's "faith based" initiatives promoting religious groups in the redefinition and privatization of the public sector.
The legal heart of the Cleveland case is whether the voucher program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. The Justices are sharply divided, and many observers expect the Court to issue a narrow ruling on the specifics of the Cleveland case. But even a narrow holding would have broad ramifications.
Vouchers have been a bedrock of the conservative agenda to privatize education and provide public dollars for private religious education. The ability to move that agenda forward, however, has been hampered by the legal cloud over vouchers. To gain support, voucher supporters have fostered the image that vouchers are merely a way to provide options to low-income minority parents whose children are trapped in failing urban schools. But if the Court accepts the pro-voucher argument that there is no government endorsement of religion because the voucher goes to parents, that reasoning can extend to all parents regardless of income. It can also extend to social services other than education.
Should the Cleveland case pass constitutional muster, one of the immediate issues facing the voucher movement is how to make the move to universal vouchers without jeopardizing the political capital it's gained by seeming to befriend low-income minorities. The perception is that the Cleveland voucher program is aimed at African-Americans, but that's wrong. African-Americans constitute 71 percent of the students in the Cleveland public schools, yet they account for only 53 percent of voucher students. Whites, meanwhile, make up 19 percent of Cleveland's public school students but 29 percent of voucher students.
For voucher opponents, a Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland program will move the battle from the courts to the policy arena. Two issues will immediately come to the fore--money and accountability. The money issue is simple. Taxpayer support for education is limited, particularly during recessionary times, and the money that goes to private schools will reduce taxpayer willingness to fund public schools. This will undercut the movement for funding equity for urban public schools and diminish funds for such important reforms as smaller classes, improved teacher quality and reducing the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos. Vouchers also undermine the calls for greater accountability. If the government tries to impose the same accountability on voucher schools as on public schools, it runs the risk of excessive "entanglement" in religion, violating church/state separation.
As voucher attorney Clint Bolick has argued, regulation of voucher schools "should be limited. It should not include any state oversight of curriculum, personnel or administration. Any program that creates extensive involvement by the state in the schools' internal affairs is likely to be found an unconstitutional excessive entanglement." In Milwaukee, home to the country's oldest and largest voucher program, accountability is so lax that no academic data have been collected from voucher schools for more than six years. As a result, no one knows how students in voucher schools are performing academically. Furthermore, the voucher schools don't have to provide the same level of services for special education students or students who don't speak English. Because constitutional rights like due process are not applicable in private schools, voucher schools can suspend or expel students at will.
Many people don't appreciate the threat vouchers pose. Who can disagree that public schools, particularly in urban areas, fail too many students? But it would be shortsighted to abandon public education and accept the myth that vouchers and privatization are the answer. Public education tries to fulfill our vision of a more democratic America, with public institutions responsible to, and controlled by, the public. The voucher movement betrays that vision. It treats education as a mere consumer item and asks us to settle for the "choice" to apply to a private school that itself does the choosing.