In February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zelmon v. Harris, a blockbuster case that will determine whether Cleveland’s school voucher program—and by implication any publicly funded voucher program—passes 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 Amendment’s 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 Cleveland’s 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 choose—public or private, religious or secular. The government isn’t “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 O’Conner and even Justice Stephen Bryer appeared to be leaning toward joining the Court’s 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 Cleveland’s disgraceful public school system, with its scandalous 28 percent high school graduation rate, the nation’s 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 City’s privately funded voucher program, found that black students who’d 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, there’s 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 nation’s educational woes, but the evidence so far indicates that they may be the most powerful tool we have to reform public education—if only the Court lets us use it.