Families & the Community

A Great Day, or Dark One, for Schools?

By Catherine Gewertz — July 10, 2002 6 min read
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Charneice M. Broughton picked up her ringing telephone on the last Thursday in June to hear news that made her burst into tears of joy: The highest court in the land had just given its blessing to the voucher program that enables her to send her 8-year-old daughter to a private school.

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“When I heard it, I just said, ‘Oh, my God! Thank you, Jesus, God is good!’” said Ms. Broughton, a single mother in southeast Cleveland who works part time as a nursing assistant while studying for her nursing degree. “I need all the help I can get just to get through the school year.”

A state-financed voucher covers 90 percent of the $2,000 yearly tuition bill for the Roman Catholic school that Ms. Broughton’s daughter attends. The 7-year-old program allows 4,200 children of mostly low-income families to use state public school money to offset private school tuition. Income families to use state public school money to offset private school tuition.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27 ruling reverberated around the nation. Within minutes, advocacy groups of all stripes were issuing statements proclaiming it a great or a dark day for education. Parents and educators were celebrating, or resigning themselves to uneasy coexistence or renewed opposition.

A Different Day

As a single parent in a troubled neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side, Cheryl Mays would qualify for the voucher program, but wouldn’t consider using it. She is happy with the magnet school her 11- and 12-year-olds attend, and the public Montessori preschool her 3-year-old will attend in the fall. “The quality of education is there for them,” she said.

Roberta Kitchen, right, celebrates with Rosa-Linda Demore- Brown, the executive director of Cleveland Parents for School Choice.
—Ron Schwane/AP

Cleveland public school advocates contend that the voucher debate has obscured the district’s fiscal and academic strides. In each of the past three years, the budget has been balanced and test scores have risen, said Margaret Hopkins, the vice chairman of the school board. A $1 billion construction program will rehabilitate district buildings.

“It’s frustrating, because the Cleveland Public Schools of 2002 is a very different school system than it was in 1995,” Ms. Hopkins said. “The [Supreme Court] decision was based on an environment and context I believe no longer exists in the Cleveland public school system.”

The local teachers’ union lambasted the voucher program for draining away from the district $14 million a year. “We already have a hard enough time providing what our children deserve, and [the voucher program] makes it even harder,” said Meryl T. Johnson, the second vice president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, a 6,000- member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Michael Fox, who wrote the Cleveland voucher legislation as a Republican state representative in 1995, took particular satisfaction in the ruling. He said he had designed the program to withstand legal scrutiny, taking care to set it up so that voucher money flowed to parents instead of directly to private schools. The justices took note of that design in deciding that the program did not amount to a state endorsement of religion.

A ‘Godsend’

At St. Mel School, a Cleveland Catholic school that enrolls 400 children in grades K-8, vouchers have been a “godsend” to the one in four families that use them, said Principal Patricia J. Kelly.

“People who could afford it have for years been using that opportunity for choice by moving to the suburbs where there are better schools, or sending their children to private school,” Ms. Kelly said. “We feel the court certainly affirmed our thought that [low-income, urban] parents do have a right to a choice.”

Similar sentiments, both for and against vouchers, echoed around Milwaukee, where a 12-year-old voucher program enacted by the Wisconsin legislature enrolls 10,000 children.

Tony Higgins, a single father, sent his two children to private secular and religious schools through the voucher program. Without it, he said, he would have had to put his girls into the “overcrowded, rundown buildings” of the Milwaukee schools, or send them on buses into suburban schools to secure a high-quality education.

Jennifer Morales, a Milwaukee school board member and a voucher critic, said she hoped that by addressing questions about vouchers’ legality, the Supreme Court decision would ease the intense focus on vouchers that she believes has “warped” Milwaukee school politics. In this year’s school board race, candidates’ support for the voucher program was a pivotal issue.

Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee schools superintendent and a leading voucher advocate who is now a professor of education at Marquette University, cautioned that the decision opened the door to more intense political fighting than ever. He noted that a recent Wisconsin legislative session featured another in a series of attempts to derail Milwaukee’s program.

“We are in a fight for our lives,” Mr. Fuller said. “The issue is one of power, of not wanting parents to gain control over resources that the unions and other holders of the status quo have controlled.”

Pressure to Improve

Around the country, national advocates expressed once again their long-held views on the voucher question, with the politically conservative clustering around support of the programs and the more liberal tending to oppose them.

The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the advocacy group People for the American Way expressed their dismay over the ruling and vowed to fight voucher proposals in state legislatures. Major public education organizations, such as the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and groups representing school principals, all lamented the ruling, some citing polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose voucher programs.

“The issue is not, as some have stated, opposition to religious or other private schools; the issue is accountability to the public for quality education for all children,” said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network, based in Washington. “And private schools, whatever their virtues or shortcomings, are simply not accountable to the public.”

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, which opposes vouchers, said an expansion of such programs would be “ominous” because of their potential to drain resources from public education. In limited settings, however, they can pressure schools to improve, he said.

“The public schools need an additional spur to use the knowledge that’s out there about how to improve the performance of low-income and minority children, to implement that knowledge on a systemic basis,” Mr. Price said.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, the pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and a leading voucher critic in the clergy, calls vouchers a “false promise” for needy urban families. “For those few families in the program, it works, but what about the thousands left in the public schools that you have just taken millions from? It’s a benefit for a few at the expense of the many,” he said.

The economist Milton Friedman, a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, first proposed the idea of school vouchers in 1955. He praised the ruling in an interview, but said the true competitive pressure—and benefit—of vouchers would not work properly unless they were available to all parents and at all schools.

Voucher proponents such as the Washington groups Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Center for Education Reform said the ruling assures low-income parents and their children the same quality of educational opportunity that their wealthier counterparts have always enjoyed.

“This is a huge, resounding victory for families who have been wanting freedom of choice in schools for their kids,” Christina Culver, the vice president for public affairs of Children First America, a Bentonville, Ark.-based pro-voucher group, said on the steps of the Supreme Court building moments after the ruling. “The public schools are failing and need to fix themselves, but parents can’t afford to wait.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Great Day, or Dark One, for Schools?

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