Appeals Court Reviews Cleveland Vouchers

Published August 1, 2000

CINCINNATI — Over 3,800 children currently enrolled in voucher schools in Cleveland can only wait as the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals deliberates on whether the city’s School Choice Program should continue to offer parents of low-income families a voucher to allow them to opt out of the public school system.

The court, the highest in the nation to rule on a school choice case, heard oral arguments for and against the program on June 20. The court is expected to render a decision late this summer. Whatever the outcome, the losing party is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’ll take this up to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to,” vowed Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Institute for Justice, which filed the appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court after Federal Judge Solomon Oliver granted the opposition’s request for a preliminary injunction against the program in August 1999.

“We made a promise to defend school choice and help these people,” declared Bolick. “We didn’t realize how ambitious a promise that would be.”

The future of Cleveland’s voucher program was thrown into doubt last May when the Ohio State Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality but also rendered it void on a technicality. After lawmakers immediately re-approved the program, opponents filed for a preliminary injunction, which Oliver granted. That injunction was later stayed by Oliver himself when he saw the disruption his decision had caused almost 4,000 schoolchildren on the eve of a new school year.

According to Bolick, who has litigated an unprecedented 16 school choice cases, the battle in the courts is over the meaning of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Opponents contend vouchers allow the government to establish a specific religion through financial support. Proponents disagree, noting the financial support goes to parents rather than directly to the school.

There is no objection to public funding of students at private institutions of higher learning, Bolick pointed out, where students may even study at taxpayer expense to become religious leaders. Opponents raise the “establishment of religion” argument only against proposals to fund students attending private K-12 schools, leading Bolick and his colleagues to believe the opposition is concerned less about constitutional matters than it is about protecting the status quo.

“The teachers union could not care less about the separation of church and state or any esoteric constitutional issues,” Bolick argues. “It’s obviously not enough for the state to defend these programs either. At the end of the day this is an issue about the real lives of real people.”

Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell also believes parents and children should be at the forefront of this issue. He addressed parents from Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati at a rally on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square during the Appeals Court’s June 20 hearing. “This is a freedom movement,” he declared. The issue is not about public vs. private schools, he said, but simply about the freedom to choose.

“Too many of our kids are being held hostage because we put bureaucracy over the child,” Blackwell said. “We are ready, willing, and able to continue this fight for freedom that we have inherited from the civil rights movement. We are demanding that we have some sort of choices to send all of our kids to the schools the parents think are best for them.”

Like Blackwell, Cleveland City Councilwoman Fannie Lewis rejects the arguments against choice. A long-time community activist, Lewis was the driving force behind the creation of the Cleveland voucher program. She sees firsthand the people the program benefits.

“Poor folks are always getting their heads counted, but nothing is happening to help them. They need something now,” said Lewis, who has worked with the Cleveland Public School System since 1951. “I have to preserve the rights for those who need something better.”

The voices of voucher supporters reverberated through the courtroom from the parent rally, led by Lewis, former voucher program director Bert Holt, and the Institute for Justice. In addition to the Harmony Community School and other local organizations, several national organizations joined the rally to show their support. These included the Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, CEO America, and the American Education Reform Foundation.

The GEO Foundation welcomed to the rally school choice leaders from Colorado, New Mexico, and Indiana. The foundation regularly engages community leaders in fact-finding trips to cities with choice programs so they can knowledgeably address the choice option in their own communities.

“These events are important to us–not only to participate in, but to learn from,” said foundation president Kevin Teasley, who pledged the foundation would continue to help communities learn how to fight for choice.

Dale Sadler, a Denver-based civil rights attorney who also is a minister, noted that having a national presence during the court deliberations signals the country is intently watching. As well as helping draw attention to the growing demand for improvements in education, Sadler hoped the Colorado delegation’s showing would help empower those in need of Cleveland-type reforms.

“We’re looking at a new day for the civil rights movement,” Sadler said. “This new civil rights fight begins in K-12 education.”

Estel Carroll, president of Parents for Educational Choice in Indiana, understands too well the plight facing Cleveland families. A grandmother currently working to keep her grandchildren in a faith-based school in Indianapolis’ inner city, Carroll said the Cleveland fight merits the support of parents around the nation because of its far-reaching ramifications.

“We want to show everyone that we stand together,” she said. “We’re all fighting for more opportunities, and for the right to choose how and where our children are educated. I believe that once we show how strong this movement is, the masses will take notice and join in. Here is where we begin that unity.”

For the families of the students currently participating in the Cleveland School Choice program, it will be an uneasy summer. They await a decision likely to find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court . . . and likely to shape education reform in the twenty-first century. The eyes of the nation remain on the Sixth Circuit Court.

Barato L. Britt is a freelance writer associated with the GEO Foundation. He covers education, focusing primarily on parental choice issues in Ohio, Indiana, and New Mexico.