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Jewish World Review Aug. 30, 1999 /18 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Save the children: The case for school vouchers -- CLEVELAND, AUG. 25 -- Maria Silaghi did not sleep last night. She scrubbed other people's floors until after midnight. And then she lay in bed and agonized over whether her 10-year-old son, Anthony, might have to leave his Roman Catholic grammar school. . . . -- New York Times

Maria Silaghi wasn't the only one. Just before the school year started, some 4,000 families in Cleveland, with kids at 56 private or parochial schools, woke up to find that a federal judge had just thrown out the state's program that gave poor families up to $2,500 a year to apply toward tuition at the private or parochial school of their choice. It's an unwritten law: Bad news always comes at the worst time.

Ms. Silaghi, a 34-year-old house cleaner, was distraught. "Please don't take this away from us,'' she said. "My son needs this.'' Like so many moms, she wants her child to break out of the poverty that has consigned her to a poor neighborhood and her boy to a poor school and therefore a poor chance in life.

The judge's decision came as a shock to Jennifer Spurgeon, too. She has three little ones at Our Lady of Mount Carmel school thanks to this voucher program. "This can't be true,'' she kept saying. "It was like somebody stabbed me in the heart.''

Mrs. Spurgeon herself had just enrolled in a trade school, but might have to reconsider now that money would be needed to keep the kids at Our Lady. The reaction of her husband Daniel, who drives a delivery truck, was immediate: "I'll take two jobs.''

What's at work here is something that no amount of political or constitutional theory, no social or educational theorizing, can substitute for: the complete devotion of mamas and papas to their kids' future. Parental involvement, they used to call it at PTA meetings. It's an intangible quality that has the most tangible of results, and it needs to be encouraged instead of thwarted.

Remember when federal judges were the ones who broke the chains and gave children sealed into their bad neighborhoods and inferior schools a way out? In the bad old days, the whole power of a state, from Jim Crow laws to the National Guard, might be used to turn some children away from the schools they wanted to attend. Who can forget the indelible images of pigtailed little girls and bright-eyed little boys, dressed in their first-day-of-school best, having to run a gantlet before making the schoolhouse door?

But now, not just in Cleveland but around the country, the federal courts are being asked to kill a program that gives the children of poor families an opportunity for an equal education.

In the bad old days, parents who wanted their kids to have a better chance in life could and did appeal to the Constitution, to the majesty of the law. (Yes, people actually used phrases like that in those days.) Those parents prevailed largely because they appealed to the conscience of the country. And who can look on what is happening in Cleveland and not be moved? Something is wrong, terribly wrong, when the law is used to suppress people's aspirations rather than support them.

Why would His Honor Solomon Oliver Jr. of Cleveland, Ohio, rule that school vouchers are unconstitutional? Because parents like Maria Silaghi and Jennifer Spurgeon were given public money to educate their children in schools of their choice, including parochial schools. Therefore, concluded the judge, school vouchers have the "primary effect of advancing religion.'' And that's the legal test for determining whether a program violates the First Amendment's ban on government's establishing a religion.

Some of us had thought that the primary effect of school vouchers was to advance a kid's education and to let poor families do what wealthier ones can afford to do: send their kids to the best school they can find.

Maybe not everyone can afford the Sidwell Friends school in Washington, but school vouchers have let parents like Daniel and Jennifer Spurgeon afford Our Lady of Mount Carmel for their kids. And, who knows, once parents like the Spurgeons can send their kids elsewhere, the public school in their neighborhood might shape up. Competition has been known to improve a lot of things. But those with a vested interest in keeping kids captive -- like teachers' unions -- seem determined to maintain their school monopoly via the courts.

If tax money were going directly to church schools, Judge Oliver would have a stronger point. But these vouchers are going only to families too poor to afford private education, and who believe with all too good reason that the public system has failed them. The primary effect of school vouchers in their case may be to improve education, not support any particular church.

School vouchers are the latest way to reach for the Jeffersonian dream of an aristocracy of merit arising out of an equality of opportunity. They give families like the Spurgeons a little of the leverage that richer families have when it comes to education.

When school vouchers are carefully limited to cases where the public schools are not providing a decent education, they would seem a promising way to crack the educationists' stranglehold on the poor.

Let's not pretend that it is simple to keep church and state separate in a society so permeated by religious ideas and ideals, but it's important to keep them separate. Both church and state have thrived in America because they have recognized their boundaries. Yet each has helped the other flourish. Perhaps the key is to let the citizens themselves, the Maria Silaghis and Jennifer Spurgeons, decide how best to assert their children's right to an education, perhaps the most ignored of our civil rights today.

At least since the wilderness began teaching the first European settlers a new flexibility in the face of new challenges, the genius of American politics has been a refusal to let rigid theory stand in the way of practical innovation. School vouchers for the poor and isolated in our educational system are only the latest such experiment, and they deserve a chance. So do all those children. This time let's not turn them away from the schoolhouse door.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate