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    A Times Editorial

    Beyond vouchers

    The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on school vouchers should allow us to move the debate on to the more important issue of how to best educate America's children, especially the poor ones.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 30, 2002

    The U.S. Supreme Court decision on school vouchers spoke to a narrow issue: Do state tuition stipends to religious schools, even when delivered indirectly, offend the Constitution's Establishment Clause? In a 5-4 decision, the court said vouchers are constitutional as long as religious schools are not the only option for parents. With that question settled, at least for now, maybe we can move on to the business of addressing the problems in our public schools, especially those in urban areas that serve disadvantaged students.

    That's not likely to happen any time soon, however. Rather than calming the voucher debate, the court's ruling has shifted it from the courtroom to the political arena. The issue now will be whether vouchers are good education policy -- the jury is still out on that question -- and that debate is likely to intensify in state legislatures that had been waiting for word from the Supreme Court before considering voucher proposals. The most zealous supporters of school choice will undoubtedly see this victory as a license to spread vouchers like grass seed, even at the risk of weakening the financial underpinings of public education. The most stubborn voucher opponents will undoubtedly refuse to give up the fight, warning darkly of a rupture in the inviolable barrier between church and state.

    The voucher plan approved by the court is neither a panacea for our educational ills nor a constitutional disaster. The nation's public schools, especially those in our largest cities, need innovative ideas and financial investment, not more divisive rhetoric.

    Putting aside legal arguments, let's look at where the Supreme Court ruling actually left us. It found that a carefully written voucher program in Cleveland is constitutional. This is a school system where fewer than 1 in 3 students graduate from high school. It was so mismanaged that the state of Ohio took over operations from the city and instituted a choice program that includes vouchers. About 3,700 mostly low-income families are given up to $2,250 to attend either religious or secular private schools, or to transfer to a better public school.

    Unfortunately, no one is talking about the plight of the more than 70,000 students still trapped in Cleveland's miserable public schools. Who will rescue them -- and how? They have been all but forgotten while the voucher debate rages.

    Even dissenting Justice David Souter expressed sympathy for Cleveland's parents and students. "If there were an excuse for giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause, it would probably apply here," he wrote. "But there is no excuse." Souter seemed to be saying, life is unfair.

    For Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, it wasn't a hard case at all. "In sum," he wrote, "the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious."

    Well, maybe in theory it does. The reality is this: The problem with the Cleveland plan is that students who leave the public schools have limited choices available, so 96 percent of them end up in church-affiliated institutions. The fact is, most of the private schools in Cleveland are religious schools. And while the Cleveland program offered voucher payments to suburban public schools, none has been willing to participate.

    Will vouchers alone be the salvation of failing schools? Of course not, but neither will vouchers be their destruction if we are willing to make the investment needed to rescue failing schools. This case will not force vouchers on the 26 states that have already rejected them. It does give states or school districts that want to adopt vouchers a constitutionally acceptable pattern to follow.

    In Florida, the matter is a bit more complex. While the state has enacted Gov. Jeb Bush's A+

    Plan that includes vouchers only for failing schools, vouchers still must clear the Florida Supreme Court. It is pertinent that Florida's Constitution, stricter and more explicit in this regard than the federal model, contains wording that was expressly designed to prohibit even indirect aid -- i.e., vouchers -- to religious institutions.

    Whatever the outcome in the Florida court, vouchers are only a small part of the state plan, with fewer than 9,000 students eligible in the coming school year. Yet they continue to distort the education debate. Critics have spent too much energy inveighing against vouchers rather than proposing constructive alternatives. Gov. Bush has grown too defensive, questioning the motives of those who would find fault with his voucher program.

    With the constitutionality of vouchers no longer at the center of debate, we should be free to move on to the more important issue of how to best educate America's children, especially poor, inner-city children for many of whom vouchers will never be an option. We will need to attract more talented teachers and to adequately compensate them. We should strive for smaller class sizes in beginning grades and provide functional classrooms and equipment at all levels. We can quit fighting about who is responsible for educational shortcomings and admit we all are. Administrators and teachers need to be accountable to parents and taxpayers, and lawmakers to our educators. Many parents, meanwhile, need to take a keener interest in their children's education and especially in seeing that homework gets done. We should expect our children to apply themselves to the highest level of their ability, and we should give them the tools to succeed.

    The Supreme Court cannot relieve us of those responsibilities.

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