Free to Choose

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision is a victory for children.

In a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to publicly funded school-choice programs, ruling that such programs don't violate the constitutional prohibition against state support of religion. "The only preference in this program is for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and have priority for admission," wrote the majority, paving the way for many more experiments in school choice in districts where public schools aren't getting the job done.

In a country that relies on publicly funded vouchers to help pay for higher education and pre-school, the only question people will have decades from now is why First Amendment concerns were ever an issue. Few worry that the state is supporting religion when a college kid spends a Pell Grant at Georgetown or Notre Dame. And government granted child-care vouchers are spent at religiously run daycare centers and preschools with nary a second thought.

The issue of extending choice to low-income families will baffle as well. Most middle- and upper-income Americans already exercise school choice. Most typically, they exercise it when deciding where to purchase a home (just ask any real estate agent). They also exercise it by reaching into their pockets and paying for private schools when the government-run institutions don't meet their needs.

Few groups exercise it more than elected officials and public school teachers, who are in the best position to judge the quality of the schools. A 2000 survey of members of the U.S. House of Representatives found that 40 percent send or have sent their children to private schools; the figure for senators was nearly 50 percent. In Cleveland, where the teachers union banded with others to fight choice, 40 percent of public school teachers send their children to private schools. In Boston, 45 percent of public school teachers send their children to private schools; so do 36 percent of public school teachers in Chicago and Philadelphia.

For too long, the only parents lacking choice have been those whose incomes are too low to pay for private school and too low to make the higher house payments required in areas served by moderate- to high-quality public schools. Education advocates have addressed this in a variety of ways. Private scholarship programs, such as the Washington Scholarship Fund, raise private donations that they turn into tuition grants for low-income families. Similar programs are running in at least 44 cities. The Children's Scholarship Fund alone awards partial scholarships to 44,000 children.

Through decades of political work, people have been able to start limited public scholarship programs. By removing legal doubts about such programs, today's decision should lead to many more experiments modeled on those already underway. For example, more than 10,700 needy children are now attending private school in Milwaukee. Two out of three scholarship-supported students attend religious schools and so could have been expelled had the Supreme Court ruled against the Cleveland program. In Florida, students in chronically failing schools are eligible for public scholarships. That program is under judicial challenge, though the outcome now seems certain: The Florida Supreme Court had put its decision on hold, awaiting for guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona and Illinois give taxpayers state tax credits of $500 for money donated to private scholarship organizations. These too could have been affected if today's ruling had been hostile. And there is of course the Cleveland program that provides scholarships of up to $2,250 for students to attend private schools. 4,400 students are currently using the scholarships, 96 percent of whom attend religious schools.

As important as clarifying the legal status of such programs, today's court decision also clarifies the real issue at stake: Money and control. Public schools control $347 billion a year in spending. This money supports 2.9 million teachers, 70 percent of whom pay dues to a union, and 2.14 million people who support the teachers. It also pays the mortgage for 133,000 school administrators, 55,000 school district administrators, and 384,000 people who support them. Combined, these forces constitute an education establishment that dreads sending control over the money to parents.

Yet school choice will not destroy public schools. Most people already enjoy a modicum of choice and most Americans therefore will not suddenly flee their schools. Where people have choice, consumers are in charge, and the schools, predictably, are higher quality. Publicly funded scholarships extend this control to low-income Americans. With money in hand, thousands of more people will be empowered to demand better performance from their public school, or take their business elsewhere. And after today, no one can argue that such a state of affairs is unconstitutional.

The education establishment understands this. That's why they've feared this day. Low-income parents understand it, because they live the reality. "School choice means that my children will no longer be ignored or taken for granted," says Roberta Kitchen who sends children to private schools in Cleveland with the help of the scholarship program. "If my children aren't getting the education they need, we have the power to choose something better. We can now vote with our feet."

And a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court understands this. That's all it takes to provide thousands of more Americans a shot at a better education and a better life

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