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Teachers College Faculty Comments on Cleveland Voucher Case

Clive R. Belfield, the Research Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University is providing commentary on the Supreme Court's decision in the Cleveland voucher case.
New York-Clive R. Belfield, the Research Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University is providing commentary on the Supreme Court's decision in the Cleveland voucher case.

NCSPE serves as a non- partisan venue to analyze and disseminate information about the contentious private initiatives of vouchers, charter schools, and educational contracting.

Dr. Belfield, who is the Research Director of NCSPE and he can be reached at : cb2001@columbia.edu and at 212-678-3351. NCSPE 's Web site is www.ncspe.org.

Belfield says:

The Supreme Court Opinion

On June 27 2002 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional status of the Cleveland Scholarship Tutoring Program (CSTP). Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined. Concurring opinions were filed by Justice O'Connor and by Justice Thomas. Dissenting opinions were filed by Justice Stevens, by Justice Souter, and by Justice Breyer.

The opinion states:
"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion, i.e., any parent of a school-age child who resides in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation of all schools within the district, religious or non-religious. Adjacent public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools." (p.11)


Interpreting the Supreme Court Opinion

Directly, the CSTP affects only a tiny fraction of America's school children. This Program offers - in the form of an education voucher allowing greater school choice - a small financial inducement, available to a select few students, for a limited duration.

However, the ruling raises many important issues about education reform for US public schools, and the ideas behind 'education vouchers'.

In evaluating education voucher programs, we ask four questions: Do they offer freedom of choice? Are they efficient? Do they impair or enhance social cohesion? Are they fair?

The opinion emphasizes freedom of choice, stating that the program offers "true private choice" and "is neutral in all respects toward religion" (536 U.S. Zelman et al. p.11). The notion of school choice is broad, to include religious schools, private schools, community schools, magnet schools, and public schools.

In his concurring statement Justice Thomas argued that education vouchers would be more equitable: "Although one of the purposes of public schools was to promote democracy and a more egalitarian culture, failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children most in need of educational opportunity" (p.7)

In his dissenting statement, Justice Breyer wrote of the possible adverse impact on social cohesion, identifying "the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict" (p.1).

The fourth question is: Will vouchers be more efficient? Although many advocates have argued that this is the main advantage of vouchers, efficiency and effectiveness were held to be less important than freedom of choice. In a concurring statement, Justice O'Connor wrote: "For nonreligious schools to qualify as genuine options for parents, they need not be superior to religious schools in every respect. They need only be adequate substitutes for religious schools in the eyes of parents" (p.9).

What Does the Opinion Mean for the Future of Education Vouchers?

This opinion will undoubtedly please voucher advocates. The opinion emphasizes the advantages of freedom of choice and the fairness of education vouchers over social cohesion.

The opinion also corresponds well with the agenda that voucher advocates may now be promoting: vouchers for low-income families in inner-cities.

But, the opinion only states what the Supreme Court considers lawful, not what is desirable. Although there may be a push for more voucher programs, in more inner-cities, there is unlikely to be a rapid growth in the medium term.

There are plenty of obstacles to the introduction of voucher programs in other school districts:
· Parents remain to be convinced of the benefits of vouchers (a large proportion of voucher recipients do not use them)
· Private schools may be reluctant to participate, being unwilling to accept government regulations
· Voucher programs may be expensive to implement (with high regulatory costs)

As well, the contention that voucher programs are fairer - and more efficient or more effective - has been challenged. The evidence on these issues is still debatable. At best, the benefits of vouchers are modest; and the costs are not fully known.

Yet, the Supreme Court opinion may be important for the voucher advocates in another sense: it gives them a blueprint to work with. It tells them what is permissible (regardless of whether it is desirable).

Since Milton Friedman's proposal in the 1960s, education vouchers have been debated in detail. But they have been stuck on the debating table. Because voucher programs vary so much, the public remains confused, policy-makers remain skeptical, and research evidence has been equivocal. Even the voucher advocates themselves are a disparate group of fiscal conservatives, parent activists, and community groups.

With a lawful blueprint for a voucher program, the voucher advocates may finally develop a standard around which to rally and a message to sell. But, the key concern is to make sure that voucher programs are assessed to be fair, be efficient, generate socially desirable outcomes, and offer freedom of choice.

 

Published Saturday, Jul. 27, 2002

Teachers College Faculty Comments on Cleveland Voucher Case

New York-Clive R. Belfield, the Research Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University is providing commentary on the Supreme Court's decision in the Cleveland voucher case.

NCSPE serves as a non- partisan venue to analyze and disseminate information about the contentious private initiatives of vouchers, charter schools, and educational contracting.

Dr. Belfield, who is the Research Director of NCSPE and he can be reached at : cb2001@columbia.edu and at 212-678-3351. NCSPE 's Web site is www.ncspe.org.

Belfield says:

The Supreme Court Opinion

On June 27 2002 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional status of the Cleveland Scholarship Tutoring Program (CSTP). Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas joined. Concurring opinions were filed by Justice O'Connor and by Justice Thomas. Dissenting opinions were filed by Justice Stevens, by Justice Souter, and by Justice Breyer.

The opinion states:
"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion, i.e., any parent of a school-age child who resides in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation of all schools within the district, religious or non-religious. Adjacent public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools." (p.11)


Interpreting the Supreme Court Opinion

Directly, the CSTP affects only a tiny fraction of America's school children. This Program offers - in the form of an education voucher allowing greater school choice - a small financial inducement, available to a select few students, for a limited duration.

However, the ruling raises many important issues about education reform for US public schools, and the ideas behind 'education vouchers'.

In evaluating education voucher programs, we ask four questions: Do they offer freedom of choice? Are they efficient? Do they impair or enhance social cohesion? Are they fair?

The opinion emphasizes freedom of choice, stating that the program offers "true private choice" and "is neutral in all respects toward religion" (536 U.S. Zelman et al. p.11). The notion of school choice is broad, to include religious schools, private schools, community schools, magnet schools, and public schools.

In his concurring statement Justice Thomas argued that education vouchers would be more equitable: "Although one of the purposes of public schools was to promote democracy and a more egalitarian culture, failing urban public schools disproportionately affect minority children most in need of educational opportunity" (p.7)

In his dissenting statement, Justice Breyer wrote of the possible adverse impact on social cohesion, identifying "the risk that publicly financed voucher programs pose in terms of religiously based social conflict" (p.1).

The fourth question is: Will vouchers be more efficient? Although many advocates have argued that this is the main advantage of vouchers, efficiency and effectiveness were held to be less important than freedom of choice. In a concurring statement, Justice O'Connor wrote: "For nonreligious schools to qualify as genuine options for parents, they need not be superior to religious schools in every respect. They need only be adequate substitutes for religious schools in the eyes of parents" (p.9).

What Does the Opinion Mean for the Future of Education Vouchers?

This opinion will undoubtedly please voucher advocates. The opinion emphasizes the advantages of freedom of choice and the fairness of education vouchers over social cohesion.

The opinion also corresponds well with the agenda that voucher advocates may now be promoting: vouchers for low-income families in inner-cities.

But, the opinion only states what the Supreme Court considers lawful, not what is desirable. Although there may be a push for more voucher programs, in more inner-cities, there is unlikely to be a rapid growth in the medium term.

There are plenty of obstacles to the introduction of voucher programs in other school districts:
· Parents remain to be convinced of the benefits of vouchers (a large proportion of voucher recipients do not use them)
· Private schools may be reluctant to participate, being unwilling to accept government regulations
· Voucher programs may be expensive to implement (with high regulatory costs)

As well, the contention that voucher programs are fairer - and more efficient or more effective - has been challenged. The evidence on these issues is still debatable. At best, the benefits of vouchers are modest; and the costs are not fully known.

Yet, the Supreme Court opinion may be important for the voucher advocates in another sense: it gives them a blueprint to work with. It tells them what is permissible (regardless of whether it is desirable).

Since Milton Friedman's proposal in the 1960s, education vouchers have been debated in detail. But they have been stuck on the debating table. Because voucher programs vary so much, the public remains confused, policy-makers remain skeptical, and research evidence has been equivocal. Even the voucher advocates themselves are a disparate group of fiscal conservatives, parent activists, and community groups.

With a lawful blueprint for a voucher program, the voucher advocates may finally develop a standard around which to rally and a message to sell. But, the key concern is to make sure that voucher programs are assessed to be fair, be efficient, generate socially desirable outcomes, and offer freedom of choice.

 

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