New York Times writer Ethan Bronner has touted it as “the most significant legal decision yet on the growing use of school vouchers.” Earlier this month the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Milwaukee parents could use state funds to send their children to the school of their choice-including parochial or other religious schools. The court's 4-2 decision overturned a lower court ruling and said that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program did not violate the First Amendment non-establishment clause. Hopeful promoters of school-choice legislation have seen this decision as the first nail in the coffin of the public school monopoly on state-funded education.
Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based public interest law firm, called the ruling “the latest example of the fact that common sense is returning to the law of religious liberty.” Hasson, whose group is currently involved in school-choice litigation in Massachusetts, added, “Courts no longer see religion as an allergen in the body politic but as a normal part of society.”
If this is true, changes in judicial attitudes may slowly be catching up to popular support for school choice. Grassroots backing of voucher legislation has experienced staggering growth during the last decade. Study after study has given the lie to claims that the solution to America's educational crisis lies in increased funding for public schools. While conventional wisdom held that money and educational success go hand in hand, mounting data have proved incontrovertibly that this is not the case. Since 1960, expenditures on public elementary and secondary education have increased more than 200%, whereas standardized test (SAT) scores have plummeted 73 points in the same period. As Eric Hanushek points out in the Journal of Economic Literature, there is no systematic correlation between spending in education and student achievement.
Broad-based support for school choice also manifests a heightened awareness of the inefficiency of public schools vis-à-vis private and parochial institutions. It is now generally acknowledged that Catholic schools nationwide do a better job educating children for less money than their public counterparts. To take one particular example, in Cleveland public schools a child has a one in 14 chance of graduating on time at senior-level proficiency — roughly the same probability he has of being a victim of violent crime at school. Cleveland currently shells out more than $7,000 per child. Meanwhile at St. Adalbert's, an excellent inner-city Catholic school in Cleveland, students are educated at a cost of only $1,500 per child.
In Milwaukee, only 50% of kids who start public high school end up graduating. Things are different at Brother Bob Smith's Messmer High School. He the is principal of an inner-city Catholic school serving primarily blacks and Hispanics. Ninety-eight percent of Brother Bob's students graduate; 80% go on to college.
It comes as no surprise, then, that support for vouchers is highest among low-income minorities (one 1997 poll revealed that 70% of blacks with an income below $15,000 favor school choice). Poorer families who historically have been excluded from better schooling because of inability to pay tuition fees stand to gain the most from broader educational alternatives. Support among minorities is higher still where school choice programs are already in place. In Milwaukee, where a voucher program has been up and running for eight years, 98% of blacks support choice.
The recent court ruling in favor of vouchers is unique in that it allows students to attend religious schools and not just private, non-sectarian schools. Joseph Viteritti, professor of public administration at New York University, suggested that the key to the decision was the court's view that voucher money went to parents rather than the schools, and that its purpose was neutral concerning religion. Carefully worded legislation ensuring that funding be channeled to parents rather than institutions is also the best guarantee against oppressive state intervention in school administration and curricula.
Despite growing support for school choice, the battle is far from over. Powerful teachers' unions, such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with combined annual revenues in the neighborhood of $1.2 billion, do not intend to relinquish their monopoly on state-funded education without a fight. Rather they are placing the highest priority on thwarting the voucher movement.
Regarding the recent school choice decision, AFT president Sandra Feldman called it “unconscionable” to give public funds to private religious schools, and Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State vowed: “We are not throwing in the towel.”
In its power struggle the teachers' unions also count among their allies President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Last month Clinton vetoed legislation that would have provided vouchers to help poor children in Washington pay to attend private or religious schools.
Meanwhile here in Italy a similar debate rages. For the umpteenth time this year, Pope John Paul II has spoken out forcefully for parental choice in education. Emblazoned across the June 7 edition of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera ran the headline: “Pope Insists on Parity for Catholic Schools.” Everything indicates that the school choice issue is an idea whose time has come.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the Legionaries of Christ general directorate in Rome.