Parents Rally for Vouchers at U.S. Supreme Court

Published April 1, 2002

Although dismissed by school choice opponents as merely “inconsequential conduits,” voucher-empowered parents from Cleveland rallied with supporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on February 20, as the nine Justices inside heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of an Ohio program that offers low-income parents publicly funded vouchers to help defray the cost of sending their children to an alternative school, public or private, secular or religious.

“On this great day in history, our esteemed Justices of the United States Supreme Court hear oral arguments about whether parents and their children across this great nation of ours will be able to exercise the fundamental principle of school choice,” said rallymaster Bert Holt, former program administrator for the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.

Victory Predicted

Institute for Justice Vice President Clint Bolick welcomed to Washington, DC the crowd of 600 to 800 school choice supporters. He recounted how 58 years ago, Thurgood Marshall had argued for equal educational opportunity before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, and the court had said “Yes.”

“Fifty-eight years later,” said Bolick, “we are here with the unfinished business from that case and we’ve asked for equal opportunity. And I’ll tell you: The Court is going to say ‘Yes.'”

Holt reminded the throng of choice supporters that the U.S. Supreme Court was finally hearing their cause because they had not given up on the fight for parental choice in education. “We won’t give up,” she added defiantly to cheers from the crowd, “until freedom of choice is the law of the land.”

“We do have a force,” reflected Daria Dillard-Stone, director of the Parent Network in Dayton, Ohio. She said the rally demonstrated a unity “I have not seen since the days of the civil rights movement.”

For Cleveland councilwoman Fannie Lewis, hearing the voucher case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court was the culmination of a 50-year fight for school choice. In her mind, there was no doubt as to which side had offered the most compelling arguments to the nine Justices. She marched out of the Supreme Court chambers with her arms raised in triumph.

“We won! We won!” she yelled to the delighted crowd below.

A $2,250 Escape Valve

Legislators in the Buckeye State enacted the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program in an attempt to address a crisis in the Cleveland public schools, where fewer than one in 10 high schoolers could pass the state’s ninth-grade proficiency test.

The program gives low-income Cleveland families a way to get their children out of the city’s dysfunctional public schools by offering them $2,250 vouchers to use for tuition at secular or religious private schools, and at participating suburban public schools. The program has been under almost constant legal assault since it was passed in 1995, with opposition spearheaded by the teacher unions, People for the American Way, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Opponents contend the program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, since the vouchers are redeemed predominantly at religious schools. Religious schools, which generally are lower-cost operations, prevail in the voucher program because a $2,250 voucher just isn’t enough to pay tuition at most secular private schools. In addition, public schools in Cleveland’s suburbs have refused to accept voucher students.

Supporters of the program contend any funds going to religious schools do so only as a result of decisions made by parents, not decisions made by the state. Also, contends Bolick, a rescue program shouldn’t be found unconstitutional simply because the alarm is answered primarily by religious schools. U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, Assistant Ohio Attorney General Judith L. French, and Columbus attorney David J. Young presented the oral arguments on behalf of the program.

Parents “Do Have Power”

“We hope [the Court’s] decision will be to uphold and preserve the Cleveland Scholarships that empower parental choice and educational freedom for all,” said Holt. “Their decision in favor of school choice will be the unique, emancipating educational opportunity for urban parents across the United States of America.”

As loud cheers greeted her words, Holt cried, “Let us emancipate!” and the crowd took up the chant, “Let us emancipate! Let us emancipate! Let us emancipate!”

“We’re going to keep raising our voices and making sure that we’re heard,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, director of DC Parents for School Choice. She conducted a roll-call of participants from more than a dozen cities across the nation who had come to support the large group of parents and children from Cleveland. The crowd included school choice advocates from:

Birmingham, Alabama
New York City
Richmond, Virginia
Dale City, Virginia
Dallas, Texas
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chester, Pennsylvania
New Mexico
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Racine, Wisconsin
Dayton, Ohio
Miami, Florida
Bentonville, Arkansas

Emerging from the court after listening to the oral arguments, Bolick told the Cleveland parents they “were on the minds not only of the Justices but also of our adversaries.”

“Even though most of you were on the outside today, you were inside that courtroom,” he said. “They say you don’t have power, but the real reason they are so concerned is that you do have power.”

According to voucher opponents, parents in Cleveland’s scholarship program don’t exercise any power because the voucher program effectively offers them only religious schools–not a choice between secular and religious schools–as an alternative to the city’s public schools. Thus, if Cleveland parents use vouchers, the voucher’s tax dollars would most likely go to a religious school.

That is an establishment of religion, contend voucher opponents, with voucher parents being nothing more than “inconsequential conduits” or a “funnel” to transfer money from the state to private schools.

In his presentation to the high court, opposition lawyer Robert Chanin made that point relentlessly, saying parents using vouchers aren’t offered a true choice of schools but are inconsequential actors who merely “play a ritualistic role” in a scheme to transmit tax dollars to religious schools.

Chanin, who also is general counsel for the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, asserted to the court that vouchers are a “lousy option.” He provoked a sharp response when he argued the public schools need more money.

“It’s not a money problem, it’s a monopoly problem,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.

The court is expected to rule by July.