Voucher Venture


Sue public schools for malpractice? Disgusted with plummeting test scores and violence-ridden campuses, more than 150 low-income parents are doing just that. With the help of the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., parents in Chicago and Los Angeles are suing their school districts for trapping their children in "an educational caste system."

The suits accuse the states of Illinois and California of failing to provide these inner-city children with the equal educational opportunities their state constitutions guarantee. The plaintiffs argue that any political or legislative remedies would take too long to help their children.

Chicago and L.A. public schools certainly have room to improve. During a typical year, roughly 1 in 50 L.A. public school students is assaulted while attending school. Nearly half of the students drop out before graduation. In most Chicago public schools, more than half the students drop out before graduation. And those who make it to their senior year and take college admission tests receive ACT scores that rank in the bottom 1 percent of the nation.

If successful, the suits would require the states to provide each plaintiff's school-aged child with a voucher equal to the amount of money the state government spends per student—about $2,500. (Local school districts kick in another $3,000 or so.) Each voucher could then be redeemed for tuition at the public or private school of the student's choice.

School board officials are skeptical. In a prepared statement, Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson Lugene Finley said, "The State Board believes that anything that would take money from public schools obviously wouldn't…serve the purpose of improving public schools."

Officials imply that more money alone would improve the quality of education at these schools. Yet the Chicago and Los Angeles public schools are hardly cash-starved. The Chicago school system boasts a $2.33-billion budget, L.A. schools command $3.9 billion, and both spend at least $5,000 per pupil, including state money.

A California voucher initiative failed to qualify for this November's ballot, placing the institute's suit in the spotlight. Clint Bolick, the institute's head litigator, says the odds of a legal victory on all counts are "maybe 50-50." Since many state constitutions guarantee universal access to a basic education, a favorable ruling in either Los Angeles or Chicago would reverberate across the nation. "The courts," notes Brookings Institution scholar John Chubb, "have traditionally been more open to disadvantaged groups than the political arena."