It's student liberation day in Cleveland. The Supreme Court ruled that Ohio can give low-income parents money for tuition at the school of their choice even if most choose parochial schools.

Here's the text of the 5-4 decision. Basically, the majority said the $2,250 vouchers serve a government purpose and don't favor religion; parents can choose a religious school, secular private school or a public alternative school.

The program here in fact creates financial disincentives for religious schools, with private schools receiving only half the government assistance given to community schools and one-third the assistance given to magnet schools. 

Adjacent public schools, should any choose to accept program students, are also eligible to receive two to three times the state funding of a private religious school. Families too have a financial disincentive to choose a private religious school over other schools. Parents that choose to participate in the scholarship program and then to enroll their children in a private school (religious or nonreligious) must co-pay a portion of the schools tuition. Families that choose a community school, magnet school, or traditional public school pay nothing. 

Justice Souter's dissent complains that the chintzy dollar value of the vouchers favors Catholic schools, which can educate at lower costs. There's an easy cure for that: Raise the amount, and secular private schools will open their doors to voucher students. 

Across the country, parochial schools provide the best education for inner-city students. Many black professionals — like Justice Clarence Thomas — used Catholic schools as a springboard to success. It will be interesting to see whether Wisconsin legislators will expand Milwaukee's voucher program to include church-based schools, and what other states will follow suit. 

States may be deterred by the fear that parents will choose Muslim religious schools hostile to American culture. That could happen. In Milwaukee, separatist "Afrocentric" schools sprang up to take vouchers, though some promptly folded. There's no guarantee low-income parents will make wise choices. But poor students will be better off if their parents can make choices. We've seen the alternative in urban school systems: Year after year, students are trapped in bad schools. Cleveland's are dreadful. 

Voucher Bounce

On Education Weak, Lisa Snell celebrates the voucher decision, but calls for eternal vigilance to guard against government interference in private schools.

In the spirit of what seems to be this year's defining theme from Spiderman, I thought, "With great power comes great responsibility." 

I can't help but think of Marshall Fritz today, and all the others, who fear that this is not a victory for parents and children over government schools, but a victory for the government over private schools... 

We know from efforts to regulate charter schools, compulsory education laws, efforts to regulate home-schoolers and education management companies that sacrifice their business models for government contracts, that regardless of the circumstances, the government will never stop pushing to gain more control over private decisions about education... 

We must stay true to the choice. We must trust competition, the market, and the individual choices of parents and their right of exit to police private schools. 

Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota, the father of the charter school movement, raises exactly the same issues from the opposite point of view. In a not-yet-published newspaper column, he calls for private schools that take vouchers to accept all applicants-- including the disabled--to adopt a tolerant curriculum and to agree to government monitoring of academic and financial performance.

Basic fairness seems to demand that schools that are competing operate under the same, or very similar, rules. If voucher advocates reject this idea, I suspect that relatively few states will adopt voucher laws. 

Will voucher advocates limit curriculum and philosophy of tax supported private and parochial schools? Will advocates reject schools receiving public funds teaching that one race is superior to others, or that hatred for America is acceptable? 

Perhaps a state like Arizona will try the libertarian parent-choice model; I suspect most will follow Nathan in telling private schools to accept some government rules if they want to take government-funded vouchers. 

Schools won't be able to take low-income students for granted if parents have a choice, writes Michael Lynch at Reason

School choice is a civil rights issue, according to this Hoover essay. 

No Competition In Cleveland

Cleveland's voucher program hasn't created competition for the public schools. The voucher amount is so small — one third of what Cleveland Public Schools spends per student — that most private schools can't afford to take voucher students. Under state law, Cleveland Public Schools keep collecting per-pupil funding for voucher students who've left for private schools. Teachers don't lose their jobs; turnover is so high the district always needs teachers. 

Vouchers won't help students trapped in awful school systems — 9 percent pass state tests; 27.5 percent graduate from high school — unless the programs are designed to fund alternatives. At a minimum, vouchers should equal public school spending. At a maximum voucher of $2,250, it's impossible to create a good school for very needy students. That's why almost all voucher students go to church-run schools. If the voucher is worth $7,130, education entrepreneurs will create schools without the need for a church subsidy.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

Respond to the Writer