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Jewish World Review August 30, 1999 /18 Elul, 5759

Suzanne Fields

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Blocking the schoolhouse door -- THE PLOT IS RIGHT OUT OF DICKENS -- a mean and pompous judge throws his weight against poor children, pretending he's doing the principled thing according to the law.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., appointed by President Clinton, used the power of the bench to prevent 3,801 inner-city children in Cleveland from going through the schoolhouse door of their choice.

You could call him the Governor Faubus of Ohio. Instead of defying desegregation, he defies a state vouchers program in existence for four years. Instead of backing the segregationist establishment, he's backing the educationist establishment.

The teachers unions, concerned with preserving their perks, are cheering him on. He's the darling of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who want the wall of separation so high it blocks out the sunshine, and a coalition of civil liberties advocates who define "liberties'' that often shut out the civil.

On the day before public schools opened in Cleveland, Judge Oliver issued an injunction to halt the use of vouchers for private schools. His reasoning was simple: The program is unconstitutional because most of the 56 private schools are sectarian and thus have "the primary effect of advancing religion.''

Instead of sharpening their pencils, snapping colored tabs in their notebooks and trying to decide whether to pack peanut butter and jelly or chicken sandwiches in their lunch boxes, children enrolled in the private schools had to worry about a last-minute switch to a new school. As if back-to-school jitters aren't bad enough.

Forget for a moment the outrage of timing, though the ruling a day before the schools opened sent both public and private schools into turmoil. Forget that some of these children have been attending the same school for four years. Put aside the fact that the parents of these children, some of whom have two or three children in the voucher programs, had to scramble to find new places for their kids or figure out a way to get the money for tuition.

One arrogant judge, whose defying common sense in pursuit of his own notions of the law, creates havoc in a system already in grave trouble. The voucher program is popular with nearly everyone beginning with state legislators. The Supreme Court of Ohio said it did not run against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court, which has not ruled specifically on such a program, has nevertheless allowed public aid to religious schools as long as it was not directly given by the state but came through parents and vouchers.

More than 17,000 low-income parents in Cleveland applied for the voucher slots, more than four times the number of total slots. Christine Sula sends three children, age 6, 8 and 10, to a Catholic school. "I think it's discriminating against people of faith,'' she told the New York Times. But for the moment it's certainly discrimination against certain low-income families. They're seeking a better education for their children than they think the public schools provide. They're motivated by the same ambitions the private-school liberals have for their children.

At the least, the parents of these children have made a choice at considerable economic sacrifice to send their children to private school. The vouchers, worth $2,250, don't cover expenses. Tuitions vary and uniforms and supplies are more expensive than in public school.

We would never have heard of vouchers if the public schools had kept up standards, and in many communities they have not. The rich, of course, do what the rich have always done: They send their kids to the best school money can buy. Lots of middle-class parents do too. Dual-career couples often spend most if not all of their second income on private school tuition.

Steve Forbes got it right in his criticism of the Cleveland injunction: "All parents should be allowed to send their children to schools that`work -- schools that provide discipline, are safe, academically challenging, and reinforce the values parents teach at home.'' He calls education "the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.''

Three judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit are reviewing an appeal of Judge Oliver's decision. The parents in Cleveland's inner city have their fingers crossed. So do we. We've had enough of Dickens' "Bleak House'' for the first semester.


08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
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08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate