In what could be its most liberating education-related decision since the segregation-condemning Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on June 27 that a Cleveland, Ohio, voucher program does not violate the separation of church and state.
"The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals.... It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is ... true private choice."
The 5-4 ruling sent shockwaves through the public-education establishment. National Education Association president Bob Chase in a press release called school-choice proposals "divisive" and insisted: "Just because vouchers may be legal in some circumstances doesn't make them a good idea."
Tell that to Cleveland parents waiting nervously for the high court's decision. When the Ohio legislature voted in 1996 to offer vouchers to poor parents in Cleveland, as many as 4,000 families jumped at the chance. But school-choice opponents sued almost immediately, leaving parents to wonder for years whether their children would be forced back into the city's failing public-school system.
The Supreme Court's landmark ruling not only provided relief to parents in Cleveland, but offered hope to others across the country, as well. Last year alone, eight state legislatures killed voucher bills, largely out of fear that the programs would result in lengthy, expensive court fights. With the constitutional question now settled, backers expect many states to revisit voucher proposals they had shelved earlier.
"We moved a big roadblock in the way of the extension of parental choice," said Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist known as the "father of vouchers." In an interview with WORLD moments after the court handed down its decision, Mr. Friedman predicted quick movement in "other states around the country that have been contemplating parental choice but have been blocked by the prospect of endless litigation and the possibility that the whole thing would be declared unconstitutional."
Mr. Friedman and others had argued that the Cleveland voucher program in no way promoted the "establishment" of religion because children could use their vouchers to attend the school of their choice-public, private, or religious. But the NEA and its allies pointed out that almost 97 percent of the Cleveland students ended up in the latter category.
The reason, according to Mr. Friedman, is simple: Ohio provides a maximum voucher of $2,250, and only religious schools can keep their tuition that low. "Catholic schools dominate because they are the only ones who do it at this cost. I hope very much that as the voucher movement extends around country, the amount is made at least a reasonable ratio of the $8,000 to $9,000 that the government spends per child in public schools."
Without the constitutional club to beat up on their opponents, the teachers unions will have to rely solely on the argument that school choice is a threat to public education. But Mr. Friedman says logic and experience teach otherwise. "It's very hard to see how you destroy public schools by providing an alternative which costs the government less. Nobody seems to emphasize that every child who accepts a voucher is saving the state money it would otherwise spend on that child-so universal vouchers would actually reduce the burden on government."