After Defeats, School Reformers Are Planning the Next Step

CLEVELAND — For Danny Kelly, the debate over school vouchers isn't academic. It's about even more fundamental things: keeping his family safe and close.

“The Catholic schools are just safer than the Cleveland [public] schools,” he told the Register. “And they're a lot safer, too — which is a big thing.”

Kelly says that family time would suffer the most if Cleveland's voucher system were to end. “I'd have to do something else to make money to make up for that,” he said. “Otherwise I'd have to go to the suburbs.”

As a construction worker in downtown Cleveland, that would mean a longer commute. “I like Cleveland. It's close for me,” he said.

“I can hop on the bus and get home and be with the kids.”

A recent court ruling, however, has put the Cleveland voucher system in peril. In November, a federal court ruled that the system was unconstitutional.

In another blow to voucher proponents, voters in Michigan and California overwhelmingly rejected attempts to create statewide voucher systems.

These events have voucher opponents proclaiming victory.

“The resounding defeat of vouchers in Michigan and California should put an end to the myth that voters want vouchers,” Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement to the Register.

“Clearly, what parents and the public want are good public schools in their neighborhoods,” said the leader of the nation's largest teacher union lobby.

New Directions

Not so fast, said the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit legal firm. “The only thing the elections results prove is that the scare tactics utilized by the teachers' unions worked,” Matthew Berry, an attorney with the group, told the Register in a statement. “After the unions spent millions of dollars on false advertising designed to frighten parents, it is not surprising that these referenda failed.”

Berry said that parents like Danny Kelly, who use vouchers to send their kids to private school, are the best testament to the program. “The evidence is overwhelming that voters like school choice once they see how it works,” Berry concluded. “If the bigwigs in the teachers unions think that Americans don't like school choice, they need to leave their office suites and go talk to parents in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida.”

Nonetheless, it does appear that the legal and electoral defeats have been a setback for vouchers. Washington insiders speculate that the climate for vouchers is downright chilly.

“The incoming Bush administration has concluded that it faces insurmountable opposition in Congress to its private school voucher plan and has decided to focus instead on two other key educational goals: regular testing of students and increased education flexibility for states,” the Washington Post reported in early January.

But just as quickly, the Bush camp refuted these reports, insisting that they will fight for vouchers for poor families.

“That will be part of the agenda — the proposals — that he [Bush] puts before the Congress and he is going to work hard to enact school choice into law,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Jan. 2.

Bush campaigned heavily on education reform during his campaign. In addition to school safety and increased local control, Bush favored giving $1,500 to parents of students in public schools that failed to meet standards for three consecutive years, enabling them to send their kids elsewhere.

“It's one of the strongest ways we have to help educate our children and to give parents options, especially for those who may attend schools that are failing our, children,” Fleischer said. “He [Bush] campaigned on those ideas, including school choice, because he thinks they are right for the country.”

Passing legislation authorizing vouchers might be difficult this year because Congress is so equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans hold a slim 221-211 lead in the House of Representatives, while the Senate chamber is split 50-50. In general, Democrats, who receive millions of dollars in support from teachers unions, oppose vouchers.

Washington's newest Catholic leader also announced his support for school choice.

Speaking to reporters before his installation as archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick called school choice a “justice issue.” “I think that the government should make it possible for them to do that,” he said. When asked if this meant support for vouchers, he said that it was only one of several options for expanding access to religious schools.

But the problem facing voucher supporters might be the contentment that suburban families have with their own schools.

“The basic moral case for vouchers is that, for the most part, nobody cares about children more than their parents,” Ramesh Ponnuru, Washington editor of National Review, told the Register. “But that is also the fundamental political weakness of vouchers. Suburban voters aren't going to overhaul the school system in order to help other people's children.”

Ponnuru said that the defeats in California and Michigan should inspire voucher advocates to focus on getting legislatures to adopt pilot programs like those found in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

And while the debate rages in the Beltway, Denny Kelly hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the federal court decision and declare voucher programs as constitutional once and for all.

“I think it'll correct itself. It'll go all the way to the United States Supreme Court,” Kelly told the Register. “I think vouchers are here to stay in Cleveland.”

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.