School Choice & Charters

Supreme Court’s Voucher Showdown Draws Hundreds To Witness History

By Karla Scoon Reid — February 27, 2002 5 min read
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The pro-voucher rally outside the court last week was swelled by busloads of Ohioans, including Jackie Meeks of Cleveland.
—James W. Prichard/Education Week

Representatives from both the pro-voucher and anti-voucher camps forged a bipartisan coalition here about 14 hours before the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Cleveland tuition-aid case last week.

The accord didn’t address the separation of church and state or the use of public money for religious school tuition. But it did establish a humane system of bathroom breaks and food runs for those gathered in line Feb. 19 at the base of the Supreme Court’s steps to secure a seat for the arguments the following morning.

“We may have been opponents on vouchers, ... but we had a great time in our common misery—the cold,” said Michael A. Fox, a former Ohio state legislator who sponsored the state’s 1995 voucher law. He camped out for a seat in the court with pillows and blankets borrowed from his Holiday Inn room.

“The last time I camped out was in 1969, after a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert in Cincinnati,” Mr. Fox, a Republican, recalled with a laugh. “We sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ around a campfire.”

Russ E. Williams Jr., a voucher proponent who was first in line, said that throughout the evening, the queue engaged in “friendly debates” about the merits of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, which allows students to attend private and religious schools with the state paying up to $2,250 of the bill.

Mr. Williams, the director of operations for the Apple Tree Institute for Education Innovation, a nonprofit group that runs an early-childhood program in Washington, brokered the line agreement with the second person in line, Nat Polish.

The owner of a software-technology company in New York City, Mr. Polish’s father-in-law, Marvin E. Frankel, is one of the two lawyers who argued against the voucher program before the court last week.

Competing Rallies

But the gentlemanly discussion came to an end when those in line were ushered by police into the court building about 9:30 a.m.

Hundreds of boisterous demonstrators took up where they left off, giving raucous voice to the case outside. Television cameras swarmed at the arrival of Cleveland voucher supporters, who made a colorful entrance wearing bright-orange knit caps as they joined demonstrators from Milwaukee; Pensacola, Fla.; Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; and Washington among other places. Students dressed in neatly pressed Catholic school uniforms fervently waved homemade signs.

“It’s David fighting Goliath,” proclaimed Chauncey Carter, a 65-year- old grandmother in a Cleveland Browns pullover. Her grandson Timothy uses a voucher to attend a Roman Catholic school.

Minutes later, a crowd of voucher opponents gathered across the street, opposite the program’s supporters, setting off a verbal war of words. “Public schools suck!” chanted some Cleveland parents as their counterparts demanded, “Public funds for public schools!”

As the crowds began to swell, tourists turned their cameras from the court to the protesters and snatched signs for souvenirs. One teenager, seemingly unaware of the crux of the debate, shouted encouragement anyway: “Fight for your right to do stuff!”

A Cleveland public school parent, Steve Croom, alluded to the prominent involvement of students in the pro- voucher demonstration as he spoke at the anti-voucher rally sponsored by People for the American Way: “My children right now are at school. They are learning something. My children didn’t take the day off to protest.”

While speakers at the rally against vouchers decried the Cleveland program as a scheme devised to prop up private schools at the expense of public schools, voucher supporters across the street began to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Indeed, the rally that voucher supporters, including the Institute for Justice, organized at the base of the Supreme Court plaza, punctuated by songs and by chants for “justice and equality,” had the air of the 1960s civil rights struggle. Yet there was one noticeable difference: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s national director of education addressed voucher opponents across the street.

Kaleem Caire, the executive director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a Washington-based group that advocates school choice, contended that the “folks across the street” are defending an institution that has failed thousands of children.

“Go tell them,” he yelled, “we ain’t gonna have it no more!”

Celebrity Sightings

Demonstrators erupted into louder cheers and chants when the lawyers emerged from the court building at about 11:30 a.m. to address a bouquet of microphones and a mob of reporters.

Fannie M. Lewis, a Cleveland city councilwoman, raised her hands above her head in Rocky-like fashion as she descended the court steps to celebrate what she predicted would be a victory for vouchers, despite arguments that allowing government money to end up in the hands of religious schools breaches the separation of church and state.

“That’s a cliché,” Ms. Lewis said, as reporters scribbled her comments down. “Nobody is looking for religion. I’m not. I’m looking for a decent education.”

With the crowd reaching a fever pitch, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, now the U.S. secretary of health and human services, made a surprise appearance, glad- handing voucher advocates. His state enacted a voucher program for Milwaukee that helped provide a model for the one in Cleveland.

And Kenneth W. Starr, the former Whitewater independent counsel who helped write Ohio’s defense of its voucher program, posed for a photo with a fan after addressing the media.

Emotions were running high, as voucher detractors at the base of the Supreme Court steps eventually melded with pro-voucher demonstrators. A verbal altercation led to a brief shoving match between two men near the court.

Mark Morrison, a Washington lobbyist, said he joined the anti-voucher cause because he tired of voucher supporters parading “poor black kids in front of the media” while, he said, depriving the public schools of adequate funding.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court’s Voucher Showdown Draws Hundreds To Witness History

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