Piss Take

The Supreme Court's ruling on school drug testing will hurt public schools more than the one on vouchers.


In more ways than one, the U.S. Supreme Court has emphatically helped to pave the way for America's kids to vacate the nation's public schools.

The decision that has gotten most of the attention, of course, deals with Cleveland's controversial–and now constitutionally sound–voucher program, which helped low-income parents exercise the sort of school choice that middle- and upper-income families can often take for granted. By clarifying the legal status of the Cleveland program, which allows parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private religious schools, the high court has removed doubts surrounding a half-dozen similar programs. As important, "a Supreme Court sanction [means] states will enact more programs," according to Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-voucher group, the Center for Education Reform.

So poor parents can anticipate more options, including private schools, in educating their kids. That's great news. Here's some really rotten news: On the same day the Supremes filed that decision, they also upheld an asinine school drug-testing policy that effectively punishes students for participating in extracurricular activities. Add one more major argument for vouchers that would let students choose where they go to school.

In Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, the court ruled that Oklahoma's Tecumseh High School was justified in subjecting students who joined after-school clubs to mandatory random drug tests. The case stems from the experience of Lindsay Earl, who participated in Tecumseh's academic quiz team and choir–two activities long associated with rampant drug use, right?

After providing the requisite urine sample, Earl tested negative–as did all but three of the 505 students tested under the policy, which was in effect for two years until the honor student sued with the help of the ACLU. She rightly considered the very process "humiliating" and "accusatory." Indeed, by all accounts, the roughly half of the nation's 14 million schoolers who take part in extracurricular activities are less likely to use drugs than other students.

No matter. "We find that testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is a reasonably effective means of addressing the school district's legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring and detecting drug use," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority, which also included Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer. This decision echoes a 1995 ruling that declared that student athletes have similarly reduced "expectations to privacy."

In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the challenged policy was "not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse." It is, of course, all those things and more. But Ginsburg perhaps failed to see the pedagogical import of widespread and arbitrary drug testing.

American schools are routinely–and often correctly–blasted for failing to teach kids much of anything. But with the help of ubiquitous "zero tolerance" policies that have made them grim, authoritarian mini-gulags and this latest Supreme Court decision, schools are driving home a very valuable and unmistakable lesson, one almost tailor-made for our suspicious, surveillance-ridden, post-9/11 world: That every student–especially those who want to be active in their schools–should be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

That dispiriting attitude is now constitutionally vetted, as are school vouchers. It seems likely that the former will only increase the appeal of the latter.