Choice in education philosophy gains support as courts continue examining questions of constitutionality

ONCE AGAIN a large city with a troubled public school system is looking to parental choice through vouchers to help some students attain quality educations. The House of Representatives approved a District of Columbia spending bill Oct. 9 that gives poor children federal subsidies for private school tuition; the bill faces a battle in the Senate and will likely require a compromise. This action comes in the wake of impressive success with voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, a pilot in its second year, still faces the question of the constitutionality of its vouchers. The Franklin County Common Pleas Court ruled the Cleveland program constitutional in July, 1996; the decision was reversed in May, 1997, by the 10th District Court of Appeals in Franklin County. The courts decided not to implement the latest decision pending further scrutiny.

While the constitutionality of vouchers continues to be examined in Ohio courts, the number of students whose elementary education is subsidized by vouchers in the second year of Cleveland's program has increased: 1996 saw 53 private schools involved, 34 of which are Catholic. Scholarships were granted to 1,994 children; the parents of 1,073 of them chose Catholic schools. Schools this year opened with 57 of them accepting vouchers and an additional 1,006 students on scholarship.

Paralleling the growth of Cleveland's program, support across the nation for the idea of parental choice also has grown. In a random telephone poll conducted in 1997 by Gallup, 48% of Americans interviewed favored “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at government expense.” Four years earlier the same question polled in the same fashion garnered just half of the support.

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), a group known for their progressive stance on public policy, has come out in favor of vouchers. In a statement, the ESA cited the positive results to date in both the Milwaukee and the Cleveland programs as reason to explore the concept as a “matter of justice and equal opportunity.”

Cleveland's voucher program follows specific procedures. Scholarships of $2,250 are granted to students in kindergarten through grade three. There are criteria for residency and financial need; the average income of families currently receiving vouchers is $6,597. Selection is made by lottery of those qualified since desire for the program far exceeds its funding, vouchers are made out to the parents or guardians of the students; parents choose the private school their child will attend. Not all students whose parents place them in Catholic schools are Catholic.

At a hearing held in Cleveland by a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives in September, educators involved in the Cleveland program expressed their strong belief in the effectiveness of that program. Among the many reasons for their faith in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program given: schools are safe and free from violence and disorder, thus teachers have more teaching time; standardized test scores are rising; classrooms are appropriately disciplined; parents are empowered because of their heightened involvement in a school they chose. Christine Keller, former administrator at one of Cleveland's private schools, said that because parents pay tuition in addition to the voucher, they have a feeling of ownership regarding the school's successes and challenges. She added that there is virtually no bureaucracy; innovations in programs and teaching methods happen in timely fashion.

Those who oppose Cleveland's pilot program cite problems with separation of Church and state, the siphoning of educational dollars away from the public schools, hidden costs for transportation, auxiliary services, and administration. They contend that the increase in academic performance of students in the program is more a function of smaller class sizes and less student diversity than of the program itself.

There are implications for Catholic elementary schools if vouchers clear the courts. Those schools presently doing a good job are likely to fill to capacity. Increase in student numbers brings greater diversity in academic ability and values. If the voucher amount covers the entire cost of educating a pupil, elementary budgets might include more money for teachers' salaries, which are usually far below those of their counterparts in public education, and more money for programs and supplies. Opportunities for the Church to serve the poor will increase. With government money will come some level of regulation.

The convergence of the current crisis in public education with an expansion of voucher programs has the potential to forge a level of cooperation between public and Catholic education unprecedented in the history of both. It will take both systems working effectively to provide a sound education for all God's children.

Edna Dierker is based in Union-town, Ohio.