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

Cleveland is Right

James Skillen


September 16, 1996

Cleveland, Ohio, now leads the way. It's the first American city to make public tuition vouchers available for attendance at religious as well as secular independent schools. So far it's just a small experiment. Only 2000 poor students, selected by lottery from thousands of applicants, will receive the vouchers this year.

Not surprisingly, parents of children who have won the vouchers are thrilled. They had no way on their own to provide for their children an alter-native to the city's failing government-run schools. Cleveland's publicly funded system, says The Washington Post (9/10/96), has "one of the state's highest per-pupil spending averages and worst academic records." Support for vouchers is highest among poor and minority families because it opens up real opportunities for better schooling.

Also, not surprisingly, opponents of the voucher experiment represent those with the largest stake in the system that has failed Cleveland's poor. President Clinton's education secretary, Richard Riley, had the nerve to say that vouchers "offer only empty promises and false hopes to students and families." Tell that to the parents whose children have been suffering under the empty promises and false hopes of the old system which they are only too happy to escape.

The Ohio legislature, which voted to fund the Cleveland experiment, is right not simply because it's trying to help poor people and to recognize rather than stifle parental choice. It's right because it's demonstrating that the state's public responsibility for education extends to all students and not simply to a government-run school system. Since states legally recognize several different types of schools and school systems, the question naturally arises: Why should public funds collected as taxes from everyone flow only to one school system, especially when that one—owned and operated by state and local governments—is failing students who have no other choice? Ohio is doing the right thing in Cleveland by recognizing that many students are suffering a grave injustice at the hands of the state's own education agencies. Government will serve those students better by allowing them to use public education dollars in the non-government sector.

Furthermore, as any number of studies have shown, there is nothing unconstitutional about a public funding system for education that allows parents to choose freely from among diverse schools, including religious schools. (See The School-Choice Controversy: What is Constitutional? J. W. Skillen, ed., Baker Books.)

Critics who argue that vouchers represent "an extreme step that will encourage communities to give up entirely on public schools" fail to see that Cleveland is not giving up on public schools. It is merely taking the first step toward making it possible for all families to choose good schools. If free and equal schooling is to mean anything in this country, the poor should have the same opportunity as the middle and upper classes to choose good schools. Vouchers help government fulfill its education responsibility toward the entire public.

Cleveland should keep on leading the nation in the right direction by extending the voucher opportunity to all students. Then parents will be free of discrimination due to race, socio-economic status, educational philosophy, and faith. The right way to build public unity amidst pluralism is to offer the same public financial support to all students, whatever their choice of schools, rather than to allow one part of the public to monopolize public funds for a school system that educates only a part of the student population.

—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.”