Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Justice, Not Poverty, Requires Choice

James Skillen


September 1, 1997

Growing support for school choice is due in part to the failure of many urban school systems. The Blum Center's Educational Freedom Report (August 22) cites a study showing that support for school choice among African-Americans aged 25 to 36 has jumped from 60.9 percent last year to 86.5 percent this year.

Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) says that the collapse of urban schools is one of the reasons that conservatives like him have shifted their school-reform attention to poor and minority families. The keen interest in charter schools, tax credits, or vouchers in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other cities attests that urban school failure is a key cause of the growing interest in school choice.

Without doubt, poor and minority children should have decent schools, and it is gratifying to see white, middle-class citizens campaigning on behalf of those in need and not merely advocating something of advantage to themselves.

Nevertheless, the movement to provide more choices for the poor and minorities in urban areas will run off track if the argument for justice does not triumph in the end. After all, how much choice should the poorest children have? Will a few additional non-religious options be sufficient? And how much should the voucher be worth: half, or one-third, or three-fourths as much as the cost of educating a public-school student? And what about those who are just above the poverty line or just outside the urban boundary? No choice for them?

Narrowly limited, half-loaf choices for the urban poor do not go far enough. Citizens deserve better than that. The kinds of choices being tested and contemplated in most cities today fail to do justice to all who suffer from failing schools. Almost every choice experiment is underfunded and also overlooks a key source of injustice: unequal treatment of those who want choice for religious reasons.

What's wrong with the current governance structure and funding of education is not simply that the system seems to have broken down where poverty is severe. What's wrong is that the current system cannot do justice to all families and schools, whether inside or outside the poverty zones. If publicly supported, fair and equal choice of schools for all students is not established soon, then more and more parents with a stake in good suburban schools or with a personal investment in private schools will turn their backs on failing urban schools and close their ears to the pleas to spend more tax dollars to rescue them. The gap between the top and the bottom of our two-tiered system will only expand.

The answer for the urban poor should be an answer of justice. School taxes should fund every child equally, whether by voucher or by direct payment to the school of choice, with extra funding provided for the handicapped or learning-disabled student. Every family should be free to choose the most appropriate school for their child—any school, whether government-run or independent, whether religious or non-religious. Only an open, pluralistic system can do justice to every citizen without discrimination due to race, income, or religion.

Public-interest arguments for full educational pluralism and equal school choice have been made by the Center for Public Justice and others. The smoke screens about violating the First Amendment and aggravating racial discrimination are rapidly dissipating. Let's do justice to the poor and minorities by establishing a system that offers fair and equal educational choice for everyone. 

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”