High Court High Noon

Education Weekly - February 13, 2002
   

Education Weekly

by Mark Walsh

When the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the topic of Cleveland’s
school vouchers next week in a case destined for landmark
status, the central issue will be the constitutionality of including
religious schools in a state program that gives tuition aid to
children from low-income families.

The wisdom or efficacy of such government benefits is not really
before the justices in the Feb. 20 oral arguments. But here in
Cleveland, the policy debate over the voucher plan has
continued to simmer since the program was enacted by the Ohio
legislature in 1995.

“Choice empowers parents,” Christine Suma, a mother of 12
who has four children attending a parochial school using state
vouchers, said one day recently. “If you can offer a government
grant to my daughter who attends St. John’s University, which is
Catholic, I question why you can’t do it across the board.”

But Meryl Trimble Johnson, a vice president of the Cleveland
Teachers Union, argues that the program takes resources from
the public schools, yet has not proved effective.

“It’s a failed experiment that has wasted tax dollars that could
be put toward research- based programs that work,” she said.
“It’s time they did away with it.”

The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program is neither the
oldest nor the largest major publicly financed voucher program
in the United States. The pioneering Milwaukee program started
in 1990, and it expanded to include religious schools by law in
1995 and by practice in 1998. It has some 10,000 participating
students, more than double the 4,200 in Cleveland’s program.
But the Supreme Court in 1998 passed up the chance to use a
case challenging the Milwaukee program to decide whether
giving vouchers to children to attend religious schools violates
the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government
establishment of religion.

Instead, in an appeal called Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (Case
No. 00-1751), the high court will use the Cleveland program to
answer that question. In what is currently a $14.9 million-a
year program, the state pays up to $2,250 in tuition for each
student to attend one of 49 participating schools. Parents are
expected to contribute either 10 percent or 25 percent of the
school’s tuition, depending on family income.

 

High-Stakes Test

The outcome of the case could either pump new life into the
school voucher movement or perhaps shut it down for good.

The stakes are high, and the Supreme Court has been flooded
with hundreds of pages of legal briefs, exceeding the number
filed in some of its most divisive abortion-related cases.

Opponents argue the program results in significant amounts of
government money reaching the coffers of religious schools, in
violation of the establishment clause.

Supporters contend that the program is constitutional because
parents, not the government, choose to use vouchers at
religious schools, and the vouchers are part of an array of
school options available to Cleveland families. (“Groups Weigh
In as High Court Mulls Vouchers,” Nov. 28, 2001, and “Voucher
Foes Submit Briefs as Supreme Court Date Looms,” Jan. 16,
2002.)

The voucher program was challenged soon after its enactment
by groups of taxpayers backed by the major teachers’ unions
and such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union,
People for the American Way, and Americans United for
Separation of Church and State. The challenge bounced from
state courts in Columbus to federal courts in Cleveland and
Cincinnati, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit
struck down the program last year as a violation of the
establishment clause.

But the legal challenge has been only one focus of attention for
Cleveland residents. There was also the initiative’s rocky first
year in 1996-97, when the program spent more than $1 million
transporting voucher students to and from school in taxicabs. A
lot of attention also has gone to the formal academic evaluation
of the program, which has painted a complex picture.

And there is the question of what effects the voucher program
has had on the 76,000-student Cleveland public school district.
At the time the voucher plan was enacted, the city district was
in the throes of a financial and management crisis that led to
temporary state control.

Roller-Coaster Ride

In the Zelman v. Simmons- Harris case, the first name is that of
Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction.

When the voucher program was enacted, she wasn’t even in the
state. Back then, she was a deputy commissioner in Missouri’s
education department. Her predecessor was sued by voucher
proponents as the administrator of the program, and Ms.
Zelman’s name has now been substituted in the case.

A spokeswoman for the state education department said Ms.
Zelman was not commenting on the case, and she referred calls
to the Ohio attorney general’s office.

Judith L. French, an assistant state attorney general who will
argue the state’s case before the Supreme Court, said the
program should be upheld because it is religiously neutral and
offers “true private choice” to parents.

“We enacted this because we had a severe educational crisis in
Cleveland, and we had to do something about it,” Ms. French
said.

The lead name on the other side of the case is that of Doris
Simmons-Harris, a 48-year-old medical clerk and mother with
one son left in Cleveland public schools.

“I’ve paid my tax money, and I believe that money should go to
the public schools,” she said. “We need to enhance the quality
of our public schools.”

Ms. Simmons-Harris said she never considered applying for a
voucher because she doubted that private schools would take
her son because of his behavioral record. She is one of nine
public school supporters who challenged the program with the
aid of the teachers’ unions and their allies.

The program is being defended by the state and also by
“intervening” groups of parents receiving vouchers and private
schools taking part in the program.

Ms. Suma, 46, is one of the parents who joined the legal battle
with the aid of the Institute for Justice, a Washington legal
organization that has long fought for vouchers. She sends four
of her children to Our Lady of Good Counsel School, a Roman
Catholic elementary school on the city’s west side.

She said she hopes the vouchers will still be around next fall
when her youngest daughter is ready to enter kindergarten.

“We’ve been on a real roller-coaster ride as to whether it is legal
or not,” Ms. Suma said of the program.

Sister Margaret O’Brien, the Good Counsel principal, said that in
its heyday, the school served more than 1,000 students, many
of them children of Slovakian and German immigrants. But
enrollment declined over the years, as it has at many urban
parochial schools.

She readily acknowledges that her school benefits from the
program. About half the 270 students currently enrolled in the
K-8 school are voucher recipients.

“It has really helped our school,” Sister O’Brien said. “I do think
that without this program, it would be hard to sustain this
school.”

Voucher opponents point to statistics showing that the
overwhelming majority of voucher students attend religious
schools as further evidence that the program represents
unconstitutional aid to religion.

According to a recent report from Policy Matters Ohio, a local
think tank that has ties to organized labor and is largely
financed by the George Gund Foundation of Cleveland, 99.4
percent of the 4,202 students using vouchers attend religious
schools this year, up from 76.8 percent in its first year.

Voucher proponents offer some explanations for that rise. They
point out, for example, that Ohio businessman David Brennan
had opened two secular private academies that served some
400 voucher students, but that those schools later closed and
were reopened as public charter schools.

Ms. French of the state attorney general’s office said the
number of participating secular private schools has fluctuated
greatly in the program’s six years.

“The litigation has had a chilling effect on private school
entrepreneurs,” she said.

A separate report from Policy Matters Ohio drew attention to a
fact about the program that surprised many people: Just 21
percent of voucher recipients during the 2000-01 school year
previously attended Cleveland public schools, while 33 percent
had already attended private schools before being awarded
state aid. The other 46 percent had entered the voucher schools
as kindergartners or came from elsewhere, it said.

“This program is not about helping those students who are
leaving Cleveland public schools, but rather about helping
people who have chosen a private religious education for their
children and want some taxpayer help in paying for it,” said
Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters.

But along with parents such as Ms. Suma, who sent her children
to Catholic schools even before the voucher program came
along, other parents such as Roberta Kitchen say they got fed
up with the local public schools long ago and were glad for the
help in making a switch.

“My oldest daughter was in the 6th grade and she could not
read,” said Ms. Kitchen, a single mother of five who works in the
audit department of a large corporation. “My other children
were not doing well. I just could not take it any longer.”

She enrolled her children in private school and struggled to pay
a discounted family tuition rate. Of her two children still of
elementary school age, Ms. Kitchen teaches one at home and
uses a voucher to send the other to St. John Nottingham
Lutheran School.

“There may have been some improvement in the public schools,
but not enough to make a difference,” she said.

Inside the System

Ms. Johnson, the Cleveland Teachers Union vice president and
an 8th grade English teacher, believes the public school system
is getting a bad rap.

On a recent tour of public schools here, she lists the ways the
system has improved in recent years. Since 1998, when
Cleveland’s mayor gained the power to name the school board
and the district’s administrator, the district has had a
charismatic chief executive officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett,
credited by many with placing the system on the right track.
(“On Borrowed Time,” May 16, 2001.) City voters last year
approved a major bond issue for school improvements, even as
state test scores for the district’s students remained
disappointing.

“Cleveland has been steadily improving,” Ms. Johnson said. She
rejects, however, the premise that vouchers played any role in
prodding the public schools to improve, an argument for
vouchers that supporters often make.

“What’s going on outside the schools doesn’t improve the
system,” she said. “The system is improved by the people
inside.”

At Forest Hill Parkway Academy, a K-8 public school on the
city’s east side, Principal Linda Hardwick said that parents of 23
students had received vouchers from the state scholarship
program, but then decided to keep them in the public school.

Crystal Banks said she used a voucher to send her son to a
private school for kindergarten, but returned him to Forest Hill
for 1st grade. He is now a 5th grader.

“The main reason is that I am a product of the Cleveland public
schools, and I think you can get an excellent education,” she
said.

Ms. Banks acknowledged, though, that she welcomed the choice
the program provided.

“I’m really torn, because the voucher is taking money from the
public schools, and they need every dollar,” she said.

Research Results

When it comes to research findings on the Cleveland voucher
program, the debate is as complex and heated as it is with
other school choice experiments.

The state has contracted with the Center for Evaluation at
Indiana University for the official study of the program. The
center has kept track of voucher students, along with control
groups of public school students who applied for vouchers but
did not receive them and other public school students who did
not apply for vouchers.

In a September report, chief researcher Kim K. Metcalf found
that with only minor exceptions, “no pattern of achievement
difference was found based on scholarship status” among the
groups.

Opponents of vouchers have been quick to cite the results as
proof that the tuition aid offers no academic magic.

But Mr. Metcalf says in the report that “it is much too early to
draw definitive conclusions about the impact of the voucher
program on students’ achievement.”

The effects of schooling and thus of the voucher program are
cumulative and incremental, he argues. And research on other
voucher programs, he writes, “indicates that the positive effects
of choice are more likely as students move beyond the primary
or early elementary grades.”

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford
Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing
definition of public schooling.

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