In a much-discussed ruling, the Supreme Court said that the First Amendment is in no way threatened just because some parents may use school vouchers to send their kids to institutions with a religious bent. School choice advocates immediately — and justifiably — claimed victory.
"This was the Super Bowl for school choice and the kids won," said Clint Bolick, vice president for the Institute for Justice, which represents low-income parents from Cleveland receiving scholarships from the program at the heart of the case.
But while the court may have cleared away a major roadblock to the use of vouchers by families that want to escape inadequate government schools, it didn't order school districts to adopt them — that battle will be waged at the state and local level. And many advocates of educational choice buck the popular assessment that they won big by voicing fear that vouchers, if improperly implemented, might actually limit the options available to families.
Among the hurdles to be overcome by voucher advocates are the so-called "Blaine amendments" to many state constitutions that were adopted in a late 19th and early 20th century anti-immigrant frenzy. The amendments were intended to prohibit public aid to the Catholic schools then serving the children of new arrivals.
In overruling such restrictions in Arizona, the state's Supreme Court said, "The Blaine amendment was a clear manifestation of religious bigotry, part of a crusade manufactured by the contemporary Protestant establishment, to counter what was perceived as a growing 'Catholic menace.' "
Such blatantly discriminatory restrictions may not pass muster in Arizona, but they're still the law in other states. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Maine's Attorney General reaffirmed his state's ban on tuition payments to religious schools.
Still, my colleague, David W. Kirkpatrick, editor of SchoolReformers.com, sees the Arizona ruling as a sign that "bigotry is finally receiving court attention." He suggests that the Blaine Amendments are on their way out.
The Institute for Justice plans to "challenge discriminatory state constitutional provisions as a violation of the First Amendment's requirement of 'neutrality' toward religion."
But even if constitutional prohibitions against school vouchers prove to be as temporary on the state level as on the federal level, that still leaves room for vigorous debate over vouchers as public policy.
Vouchers are popular with the public — but with significant caveats. An ABC News poll in the wake of the Supreme Court decision found a healthy 60 percent of respondents who have children 17 and under support vouchers. But that same poll found support dropping "if vouchers cut public school funding."
Of course, funds for public schools might well be expected to decline in proportion to the number of students who seek education elsewhere — which may or may not be what the poll respondents had in mind when they reconsidered their support. That leaves the poll results open to interpretation — and fuels legislative battles.
Teachers' unions have long opposed anything that would divert students from government schools. Their opposition, backed by political clout, was specifically cited by the Christian Science Monitor as a barrier to voucher programs.
There's also the risk that politicians, responding to fears about reduced funding for government schools, could approve voucher programs that offer inadequate tuition payments. Scott Morgan of Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit that creates alternative schools, warned the Christian Science Monitor, "If the voucher is not large enough, there is no incentive for education entrepreneurs to come in and create new options."
Voucher programs that are poorly implemented, or come with strings attached, worry even the most devoted fans of educational choice. There's the very real risk that legislators and bureaucrats might use the leverage offered by vouchers to transform private institutions into pale imitations of government schools.
Calling vouchers examples of "welfare" rather than school choice, Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute cautions that under the existing Cleveland program, "The participating school agrees to allow the state to control its tuition and also agrees to surrender control over admission requirements."
Lisa Snell of the Reason Public Policy Institute responded to the Supreme Court decision with a statement that, "It is up to us to be eternally vigilant, to make sure that school vouchers remain an opportunity for children to have more education choices, and not an opportunity for government legislation to constrain and regulate private schools."
In fact, before the Supreme Court issued its voucher decision, congressional Republicans had shifted gears, dropping proposals for vouchers in favor of tuition tax credits. Arizona and Pennsylvania already allow individuals to deduct contributions to funds that help students pay school tuition. Advocates say that since tax credits involve less government involvement than vouchers, they reduce officials' leverage over private schools, and engender less political opposition.
Many school choice advocates go even further. The activists at the Alliance for the Separation of School and State say that government is no better at providing education than it is at providing food and housing. They'd prefer that, as with those other necessities, education be handled by private, voluntary arrangements that meet each family's requirements.
But the Supreme Court's ruling has clearly revived the prospects of vouchers and made them politically viable, if not a sure bet. Soon after the Supreme Court's ruling, President Bush endorsed the decision, and called for vouchers' quick implementation.
Voucher advocates now have an opportunity to put their plans into effect. Like the rest of us who are disappointed with the government schools, they hope that their victory means a real expansion in educational choice for Americans.
— Arizona Daily Sun