School Choice after Cleveland

The U.S. Supreme Court's 5-to-4 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris affirmed the constitutionality of the publicly funded school voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio. The decision is a victory for children participating in Cleveland's program. More importantly, it encourages other states to design and implement similar programs for children trapped in low-performing public schools.

School Choice in Cleveland

For six years, Cleveland's school choice program has allowed any public school student to opt out of the city's failing public schools using a tax-funded voucher. The vouchers – up to 90 percent of tuition at participating private schools – are available to students in grades K through 8 enrolled in Cleveland public schools.

A major objection made by opponents of the program is that it allows children to use the vouchers for tuition at religious schools. More than 96 percent of the 4,195 students who received educational vouchers last year attended private religious schools. This is because 46 religious schools and 10 nonsectarian schools accept voucher students. Although other public school districts were eligible to participate in the program, no suburban public schools agreed to accept voucher students.

When the program started, Cleveland public schools were among the worst performing schools in the country. State and local leaders had tried for years to improve them by increasing funding and staff, allowing schools more flexibility, and implementing new programs and methods. Nothing worked.

The question faced by Cleveland – and many school districts across the country today – is what should be done about schools that cannot or will not improve, even when given the money, resources and flexibility to do so? Cleveland's answer was school vouchers.

The Supreme Court Opinion

Opponents of school choice challenged Cleveland's program on First Amendment grounds, claiming that tax-funded vouchers allowing children to attend religious private schools violate the prohibition of the establishment of religion. However, as the Court affirmed, the Cleveland program ensures that individuals, not the government, choose where the funds are spent, and thus the program does not violate the Constitution. According to the majority opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Cleveland program "is one of true private choice … and thus constitutional."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Souter claims that because 82 percent of private schools in Cleveland are religious, voucher students are compelled to attend religious schools. Justice Souter's argument implies that an identical voucher program would be constitutional in districts with a smaller proportion of religious schools, but not in Cleveland where the need for vouchers was greatest. However, as Rehnquist's decision notes, Cleveland parents have choices in addition to private schools. Cleveland students may remain in public schools and receive funding for tutoring, obtain a scholarship to attend a nonreligious private school, or attend a public charter or magnet school.

School Choice after Cleveland

The Court's decision demonstrates that a carefully designed voucher program can pass constitutional muster. Parents must individually choose the school, and as long as other options are available, it doesn't matter that most families choose to send their students to religious schools. But a vital point for future reform efforts is that voucher programs must be embedded in a larger array of educational options.

School Vouchers and Educational Policy

Although the Court ruled that a carefully constructed school voucher program is constitutional, it does not have the authority to determine the soundness of vouchers as education policy. Thus, the fate of vouchers lies in the hands of state legislatures and voters. But now that the constitutional hurdle has been cleared, the debate can move forward.

Voucher proponents must make convincing arguments that vouchers are not only constitutional, they are also good for children. There are three especially important arguments.

First, vouchers give parents more opportunity to find a school that meets their child's educational needs. Different children have different needs and learning styles, and our one-size-fits-all public education system cannot meet all these needs.

Second, vouchers have the potential to level the playing field. Before vouchers, middle and upper income families could flee failing public schools by moving to the suburbs, while urban public schools had a monopoly on the education of lower-income children. A voucher equal in value to the average amount spent by the public school system would empower the urban poor in the educational marketplace.

Third, vouchers will actually strengthen the public schools. The three publicly-funded school voucher programs that include private religious schools – in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida – show that the competition created by school voucher programs actually improves public school performance.

  • In Milwaukee, Wis., public schools responded to school choice by developing more childhood education programs, expanding before- and after-school programs, increasing the number of public charter schools and improving students' access to health care.
  • In Florida, some schools provided Saturday tutoring, required parent-teacher conferences during each grading period, developed classroom libraries and made closer observations of teachers in failing schools.ba405tab1

Harvard University economics professor Carolyn Hoxby, who has studied the effects of competition on school districts across the country, finds that all schools perform better in areas where there is vigorous competition among public and private schools. Students in areas with many low-cost private school choices score higher on national tests than those in areas with less competition. [See the Table.] For example, average 8th grade scores are 2.7 national percentile points higher in reading and 2.5 percentile points higher in math; and 12th grade scores are 3.4 points higher in reading and 3.7 points higher in math.

Privately funded voucher programs – in Washington, D.C.; Dayton, Ohio; New York, N.Y.; Charlotte, N.C.; and San Antonio, Texas, among others – show similar results.

School Vouchers – What's Next?

Although this constitutional challenge to school choice has been settled, there are still obstacles to freeing children trapped in failing schools. Those who are financially invested in the status quo – teachers' unions, school administrators and others – will continue to vigorously oppose competition, even though the evidence indicates vouchers work. To date, publicly funded school choice options that include private nonsectarian and religious schools have been created in only three areas. A number of state legislatures can be expected to debate voucher programs now that the Supreme Court has ruled that they pass constitutional muster.

Congress should act immediately to create a school voucher pilot program in Washington, D.C.

As we wait for the states to respond to the Court's decision, Congress should act immediately to institute a school voucher pilot program in Washington, D.C. Despite the fact that the District of Columbia spends more than $8,000 per pupil – more than 46 other states and almost $2,000 more per pupil than the national average – students in D.C. public schools still perform near the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math assessments. A controlled pilot program would further demonstrate the benefits of school vouchers for wary state leaders and would benefit students trapped in failing D.C. public schools.

Matt Moore is a policy analyst and Lauren Mutti is an intern with the National Center for Policy Analysis.