In February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zelmon v. Harris, a blockbuster case that will determine whether Clevelands school voucher programand by implication any publicly funded voucher programpasses constitutional muster. Opponents of the program, including the teachers unions and their fellow travelers at the ACLU and People for the American Way, charge that it violates the First Amendments protection against government establishment of religion, since families can choose to use their vouchers at religious schools.
The constitutional objection is highly dubious. After all, if Clevelands program is unconstitutional, then so are programs like the G.I. Bill, Pell Grants, and the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit, in which the government also provides vouchers to students to defray costs at whatever educational institution they or their parents choosepublic or private, religious or secular. The government isnt establishing religion in any of these initiatives because, first, it is only promoting the secular good of education, and, second, it is sending money to students, not to religious institutions.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court may well accept this pro-voucher point. While it is always perilous to read too much into the justices questioning during oral arguments, Justice Sandra Day OConner and even Justice Stephen Bryer appeared to be leaning toward joining the Courts four conservative judges in upholding the program.
A decision to uphold would be a huge boon to the low-income, mostly minority kids trapped in Clevelands disgraceful public school system, with its scandalous 28 percent high school graduation rate, the nations lowest. Seven high-quality academic studies, each using a randomly assigned control group, show that students who get vouchers to attend private schools benefit scholastically. The most recent research, which looked at New York Citys privately funded voucher program, found that black students whod spent three years in private school thanks to the program enjoyed a jump of 9 percentile points on standardized tests.
In addition to studies showing that vouchers help the kids who receive them, theres solid research by Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby that suggests that voucher programs significantly boost the quality of public schools that have to compete with them. Rather than draining necessary resources from the public schools, as critics charge, voucher programs appear to galvanize public schools into using their resources more wisely and improving teaching.
Vouchers are not a cure-all for the nations educational woes, but the evidence so far indicates that they may be the most powerful tool we have to reform public educationif only the Court lets us use it.