Nothing in the Constitution Bars Helping Inner-City Kids

Is it morally defensible to deny decent educations to poor children for the sake of a school system?

Eulanda Johnson sees her daughter's move from Cleveland's dismal public school system to St. Mary's Elementary as a kind of deliverance. At public school, she says, 9-year-old Ebony learned little amid the disruptive kids, and administrators "only want your kid in that seat to get the money" from the state. At St. Mary's, "I felt welcome when I walked in the door, and when I walk through a door and feel the warmth and the care, I know that that's the school for my child." Before long, with the help of a state voucher program that pays most of her tuition, Ebony "wanted to start learning."

Such stories form the human backdrop to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, perhaps the most momentous case pending before the Supreme Court and certainly the most important church-state case in many years. In a lively 80 minutes of arguments on February 20, the four more-conservative Justices and the perennially pivotal Sandra Day O'Connor seem inclined to uphold an Ohio law that provides tuition vouchers for Ebony and more than 4,000 other Cleveland children, most of them poor and black, to attend private schools.

The outcome is no sure bet, but O'Connor and the four other Justices were sharply skeptical of arguments by voucher opponents that because the vast bulk of the state voucher money goes to religious schools, the program amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. If the Court does uphold the Cleveland program, then it will remove the legal cloud over similar programs in Milwaukee and Florida, will clear the way for voucher programs elsewhere, and will put the focus on the large policy questions posed by these pioneering efforts to provide inner-city children with alternatives to failed public schools. There are two central questions: Are school choice programs good for the children whose parents so desperately seek vouchers? And are vouchers bad for those who remain behind in the public schools?

A growing body of evidence, while disputed and not yet conclusive, suggests that the answer to the first question is yes, and—more surprisingly—that the answer to the second is no. This calls into question the widespread assumption that voucher programs will make failing public schools even worse by draining their budgets and skimming off the most-committed students and parents. In fact, public schools in cities with well-designed voucher programs end up with more resources per pupil, because each voucher costs far less (a maximum of $2,250 in Cleveland) than the per-pupil cost of the public schools (more than three times as much). And several studies suggest strongly that the danger of cream-skimming is greatly exaggerated and—most important—that competition from voucher schools provides powerful incentives for failing public schools to improve.

A study of the Milwaukee voucher program "suggests that public schools have a strong, positive response to competition from vouchers," Caroline M. Hoxby, a respected Harvard economist, has written. She added that the "schools that faced the most potential competition from vouchers had the best productivity response." Accounts in the Milwaukee press suggest the same, as do studies of some other urban school systems facing competition from various school choice programs. Indeed, Spence Korte, superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools, said in a television ad: "Like many other monopolistic operations, you get a little complacent when you're the only game in town.... We needed to be able to compete, to really get better."

Even if closing off all escape routes for poor children had some chance of preventing inner-city schools such as Cleveland's from becoming even more dreadful, it would be morally indefensible to deny decent educations to low-income children for the sake of the school system. Would you sacrifice your own children to dilute the dreariness of the worst public schools?

The strongest evidence that voucher programs benefit the children who use them comes from their parents. Most "tend to be much more satisfied [than public school parents] with their child's school," says Kim Metcalf, a researcher evaluating the Cleveland program. The three Cleveland parents I interviewed—Eulanda Johnson, Roberta Kitchen, and Christine Suma—seethe at suggestions by voucher opponents that they are not smart enough to decide what's best for their children. The voluble Kitchen, a gainfully employed college graduate who has raised five children abandoned by their mother, speaks eloquently of how private (religious) schools have taught her children more, given them more individual attention, made them safer, and exposed them to more racial diversity than the public schools, which are mostly black.

Empirical studies of voucher recipients' academic progress, while mixed, offer some validation for the parents' enthusiasm. "Although controversial, research generally shows positive effects for students using vouchers to attend private schools," the Brookings Institution concluded in a report last September. Voucher opponents attack such analyses and stress evidence suggesting that kids learn no more in voucher-supported schools than they would in public schools. But seven studies that seem fairly reliable have all found statistically significant academic progress for at least some subgroups of the voucher students, particularly African-Americans.

The Cleveland voucher program grew out of a 1995 ruling by a federal judge transferring control of the city's school system—one of the nation's worst—to the state of Ohio with instructions to remedy deficiencies amounting to a state of "emergency." One of the state's earliest initiatives was to pass a law offering vouchers to low-income parents who wanted to move their kids to participating private schools or suburban public schools. The state has also sought to re-energize regular and magnet schools; has encouraged the formation of independently chartered "community schools"; has offered special $500 "scholarships" for private tutoring; and has pumped more money into the school system.

The vouchers cover 75 percent to 90 percent of the tuition at participating private schools, which can charge no more than $2,500 in all. Any participating suburban public school would get $6,544 from the state for each student from Cleveland. But none has ever agreed to participate. And only a small and shrinking number of nonsectarian private schools have participated, in part because it's hard to cover costs with $2,500 per pupil and in part because the two largest nonsectarian schools dropped out of the voucher program to become community schools. (That made them eligible for about $4,500 per pupil.) The result is that since 1998, the percentage of voucher students and state money going to the religious schools has risen from 85 percent to more than 99 percent.

A federal district judge and a divided three-judge federal appellate panel stressed these percentages in striking the program down as a forbidden subsidy for religious instruction. This despite the history clearly showing that the program was created not for the sake of religious schools, but for low-income students; despite the availability of alternatives, including the community schools and money for private tutoring; despite the voucher program's openness to nonsectarian schools in Cleveland and suburban public schools; and despite the fact that not a dime of state money goes to any religious school excepting those independently chosen by parents for their children.

The Bush Administration and a coalition of conservatives and centrists have urged the Justices to uphold the voucher program. On the other side, an array of liberal-leaning groups, spearheaded by the teachers unions, wants the Court to brand it an establishment of religion. Such a ruling would, in effect, drive thousands of poor kids back into failing public schools unless their low-income parents could come up with another $2,500 a year for tuition. Eulanda Johnson, for one, vows to take a second job if it comes to that.

The main legal hurdle for Justices inclined to uphold the voucher program is that they would have to mangle (or overrule) a 29-year-old precedent that voided a voucher plan in New York City. At least five Justices may be ready to do just that. They can cite a more recent line of decisions taking a benign view of government funding of programs that have the incidental effect of subsidizing religious activity, if the programs treat religious and secular groups neutrally and avoid any appearance of "endorsing" religion.

The Cleveland program easily passes the neutrality test. And it's a stretch to see how this effort to help poor children becomes an endorsement of religion merely because almost all of the private schools currently willing to participate happen to be religious. Indeed, to cite that happenstance as a basis for snuffing out one of the few glimmers of hope in the desolate landscape of inner-city education would look a lot like discrimination against religion.