Let freedom ring

Will June 10, 1998, be remembered as a great moment in history?

Issue: "China’s one-child policy," June 27, 1998

Mark down June 10, 1998, as a new anniversary to be observed by freedom-loving people. In years to come, you may well look back to that date as the occasion when another specific freedom came kicking and screaming into the world-breathing liberty's bracing oxygen for the first time.

June 10 may not quite match June 15, 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta in England. Or July 4, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Or September, 1862, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or 1989, when the collapse of the Berlin Wall rumbled its announcement of the end of the Soviet empire.

But then again, this June's freedom is pretty important. That's why I think it may be remembered in the annals of freedom's Big Ones. It got a little media attention-but not nearly what it deserved.

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On June 10, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin boldly and articulately declared that it is altogether just to use so-called public funds to send children to schools not operated by the state. It is even OK, said the court, to use state money to send those children to religious and parochial schools.

Limited as it is to Wisconsin, and focused even more narrowly on a specific case in Milwaukee, the court's decision may not seem to warrant such adulation. But thoughtful analysts over the last couple of weeks tend to agree: This was a watershed decision.

Specifically, the court approved a voucher plan allowing several hundred low-income Milwaukee children, who would be chosen in a lottery, to enroll in private schools of their choice. According to the plan, the state will pay either the tuition of the school itself, or the amount the state would spend for the child's education if he or she stayed in a public school. (Right now, Wisconsin pays $4,900 for each student in Milwaukee's schools; average private school tuition in the city is $2,800). What upsets the public education lobby is that the amount paid by the state for each child transferring will be deducted from the public-school budget for the following year.

"The decision is likely to invigorate school-voucher legislation that has been shelved in other states," reported The Wall Street Journal, "while arguments over whether vouchers violate the constitutional separation of church and state work their way through the courts." But isn't there a risk that such celebration is premature, and that the U.S. Supreme Court might reverse the Wisconsin decision? Yes, an appeal is likely says Journal reporter June Kronholz. "That is exactly what voucher promoters want, however, because a favorable ruling would deprive reluctant legislatures and even Congress of their justification for opposing vouchers." And both the Milwaukee plan and now the Wisconsin court ruling have been crafted with Supreme Court guidelines very much in mind.

Key to the program is that the tuition vouchers in Milwaukee go not to schools, but to parents. The parents decide where the vouchers will be spent. A student qualifies, says the court's majority opinion, "not because he or she is a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist; it is because he or she is from a poor family and is a student in the embattled Milwaukee Public Schools." In that sense, the program is analogous to the popular GI Bill, which for 50 years has permitted military personnel to get tuition credit in the nation's colleges, universities-and even its seminaries and Bible colleges. No "separation of church and state" challenge has ever slowed down that program.

Now the Milwaukee decision opens the door for much wider application of the voucher concept. Across the country, dozens of experiments have sprung up to test a variety of approaches-some with public funding, and some with private. Indeed, just a couple of days before the Wisconsin decision was handed down, two wealthy businessmen announced a gift of $200 million to fund a scholarship program of their own for low-income students in private schools. The main point in all this is that the pendulum is swinging because so many folks are more and more fed up with what the public system offers them.

High on the list of those who are fed up, for obvious reasons, are those who find themselves in inner-city schools. These are schools whose buildings tend to be collapsing-but the collapse is also educational, moral, administrative, and fiscal as well. The combination of parents from such schools with the traditional private and parochial school lobby is something WORLD predicted half a dozen years ago. Now it is happening.

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