e-mail us

Catholic Education

School choice tackles educational deficiencies


In an education study 20 years ago a Reagan administration blue ribbon commission called the United States a “nation at risk.” That became the title of their summary report, which described the deficiencies in our educational system and said that we have done something to ourselves that would be seen as an act of war if a foreign power were to blame.

A movement began then and continues to this day to “fix” public education. One strong current in this river of reform has been the “school choice” approach. This means giving parents the opportunity and wherewithal to choose the school their child attends.

In the public school system, of course, children are assigned to a school according to their home address. People with financial resources have school choice, because they can afford to either move to an area with better schools or send their child to a private school. Parents without such means are stuck with the school assigned to them, regardless of its quality or fit to the child.

School choice programs fall into three categories.

Full school choice programs, also known as tuition vouchers, provide parents with a portion of the public educational funding allotted for their child to attend school, and allows them to use these funds to attend the school of their choice. Such a school might be a private school, a religious or parochial school, or a neighborhood or magnet public school.

Private scholarship programs and charter schools are two other forms of school choice. Charter schools provide an alternative to the cookie-cutter district school model.

School voucher programs are not new. Since 1869, the state of Vermont has had a law authorizing “tuitioning” in which the state pays for children to attend private schools in towns without public institutions.

In 1990 Wisconsin’s legislature adopted an urban voucher program for students in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee. Five years later the program was expanded, after a Wisconsin Supreme Court judgment, allowing students to use the vouchers at religious schools.

In this program, only families earning up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level can participate. Parents receive vouchers worth approximately $5,000.

In June 1995 the Ohio legislature enacted the Pilot Project Scholarship Program, authorizing a voucher program in the city of Cleveland, which immediately met with opposition.

On June 27 last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, upheld the Cleveland school choice program against a federal constitutional challenge, saying that it was not against the constitution to provide funds that would be spent at private, religious schools.

“We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for himself and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

Supporters of school vouchers celebrated the ruling.

Florida’s 1999 A Plus Education Plan included a school choice provision that offers scholarships to enable children stuck in failing schools to attend another public or private school of their choice. Last August, a state court ruled that the program was in violation of the state’s constitution. Gov. Jeb Bush has appealed.

It is estimated that more than 27,000 students nationwide participate in a voucher program. Public support for such programs, though, has been weak, according to the National Association for Elementary School Principals. Since 1972, seven pro-voucher state ballot initiatives have been defeated, many by at least a 2-1 margin. Three separate 2001 surveys found that the American public doesn’t support vouchers or politicians who do.

Of the 20 states that have introduced voucher legislation, only three have voucher programs of some kind.

Vouchers are controversial. They are opposed by the National Education Association, and supported by the Cato Institute and other right-wing think tanks. Critics say they are an open part of a campaign to privatize public schools, that they subvert the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threaten to undermine our system of public education.

Catholic schools have played a key role in the history of school choice. With their record of effectively educating children at lower cost than other private schools and even public schools, they are touted as sterling examples of how education in America can work. Catholic school supporters worry that voucher programs will contribute to diluting the effectiveness and identity of Catholic education. No one wants Catholic schools to simply become more efficient versions of public schools, but if a quality education can be made available to more children, voucher programs seem to be worth a try.

In this special issue, we take a look at how school voucher programs have worked in Cleveland and in the state of Florida. In their reports, Nancy Erikson and Judy Gross bring human faces to the debate about school choice.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003