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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2001 / 9 Shevat, 5762

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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Allow all American children a decent chance -- AMERICA is a formidable educational innovator, so formidable that it is the envy of the world. It developed the business school. It produces graduates - from software engineers to humanities scholars - who excel in their specialisms. Its research institutions shine.

There is, however, one area of US education that stands out like a ghetto between the skyscrapers. That area is secondary school education in cities. The same parents who place an embarrassing number of phone calls to win their children admission to Harvard or Berkeley bridle at the thought of sending young ones to city public schools.

Their logic is hard to fault: American public schools on average - even including the suburbs - produce pupils who score among the lowest in the developed world on national standardised tests. The main inmates of the school ghetto are America's poor and minority children, whose parents lack the cash to move them to independently-funded religious or private schools, or to decamp with them to suburbia. The US, so concerned with equality of education, locks those who need opportunity most into a failing system.

Many education experts treat this as a pedagogic problem, or one of extra funding. But it is a more fundamental one, that of monopoly. America's teaching establishment - its local boards of education and teaching unions - does not want to lose exclusive access to the considerable public resources devoted to pre-college education.

In the courts, its most successful defence has been the argument that the use of public funds at religious schools breaches the nation's traditional wall between church and state. Next month, though, the Supreme Court will review this when it considers a voucher programme in Cleveland, Ohio, that allows inner-city parents to use a share of tax money to pay for schooling at non-government schools, a group that includes religious schools.

Zelman vs Simmons-Harris, as the case is known, provides a compelling example of the ghetto problem. In the late 1990s, Cleveland's school district performed worse than any other in the state - so poorly that a federal court took emergency steps and moved control of the school system to the state capital. Cleveland's high-school graduation rate was a mere 28 per cent, the lowest share in the nation. In other words, Cleveland schools were not merely bad; they were some of the worst in the world.

State legislators then created a small voucher programme, which gave families of pupils vouchers worth $2,250 to spend at the school of their choice. So that they would not be accused of skimming off top students, the programme's framers intentionally gave slots to low-income families.

The voucher programme was instantly oversubscribed. Parents, most of them poor, used their vouchers to relocate their children to non-public schools - mostly Catholic and Lutheran ones. A Harvard study showed that pupils in the voucher schools improved during their time there and often performed better than their public school counterparts.

Opponents of this project, and other voucher experiments, at first tried to depict them as a threat to the right of equality of opportunity. The website of America's big teaching union, the National Education Association, argues that vouchers can "cause racial, economic, and social segregation of students" - presumably when white families use vouchers to move out of inner-city public schools.

This position makes the NEA look silly, since most of the school districts where voucher experiments were in place were already almost full of minority students. What is more, black and other minority parents turned out to be some of the most vehement advocates of the voucher option. Black Baptist ministers preached sermons on their merits in their churches. A new group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, says that a Supreme Court ruling in favour of vouchers could have the impact of "few cases since Brown vs Board of Education", the landmark 1954 segregation ruling.

Opponents are likely to argue that the vouchers are illegal under the first amendment to the constitution, which holds that "Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of Religion". Presumably they will say that vouchers amount to improper government support for religious education. But this position, for which courts showed sympathy in the 1960s and 1970s, conflicts with recent interpretations of the law. In a series of decisions dating from 1983, the Supreme Court upheld funding programmes that contained some element of support for parental choice of religious schools. What is more, allowing children to use vouchers for religious schools is consistent with many related decisions the courts have made.

They have, for example, long sanctioned the flow of federal dollars to religiously affiliated universities and nursery schools. From the postwar GI bill onwards, students have used federal cash grants to study at religious colleges, from Indiana's Notre Dame to New York's Yeshiva University. More recently, they have also allowed cities to pay for the transport of schoolchildren to religious day schools. In 2000, in Mitchell vs Helms, the Supreme Court allowed religious schools to receive pubicly funded computers.

The outcome of Zelman vs Simmons-Harris will be close. Civil rights, as always, will be on everyone's mind. It would be worse than ironic if the Supreme Court, whose raison d'etre is protecting such rights, denied to city children the chance to compete that is now available to just about everyone else in US society.

* My apologies to former Senator Russell Long, whom I last week described as "the late". In fact, he remains very much alive.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2001, Financial Times