Of the private schools in Cleveland’s voucher program, 82 percent are religious, and 46 of the 56 private schools approved for the voucher system are run by a religious denomination.
The court majority, along with the Bush administration in statements supporting the ruling, cynically cast its decision as one that aids working families, especially Blacks and other oppressed nationalities, because it supposedly provides the only way out of a crumbling public school system.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a statement opposing the decision. Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president, said vouchers "will mean fewer dollars for public schools where most Americans are educated. School voucher programs siphon scarce tax money away from struggling public schools."
The major teachers unions have also come out in opposition to vouchers and other moves that undermine public education. The National Education Association issued a statement calling vouchers "a divisive and expensive diversion from continuing progress" in public schools.
The ruling proclaimed that the Cleveland voucher program met Constitutional muster because it is "neutral in all respects toward religion" due to the fact that government aid "reaches religious schools only as a result of genuine and independent choices of private individuals."
The dissenting judges pointed out that regardless of any Constitutional questions, the $2,500 cap on tuition assistance only gives the illusion of choice because the cost of attending most private schools other than religious institutions is well beyond the reach of working families who receive the state funds.
In their decision the majority feigned concern for the deplorable state of Cleveland’s school system. "Cleveland’s public schools have been among the worst performing public schools in the nation," Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared. Ninety percent of the student body in Cleveland did not meet basic proficiency standards in the 1999–2000 school year. Sixty percent of the students who received vouchers were from families at or below the poverty line. None of the dissenting judges disagreed with the assessment; they simply pointed out it has nothing to do with the Constitutional question at hand.
Resegregation of public schools
To a greater or lesser degree, the wretched facilities and lack of ability to receive a basic education is the bitter reality for millions of other working-class students and their parents around the country. Resegregation of the schools has been on the rise for more than a decade. Seventy percent of the nation’s Black students now attend schools that are made of up students from oppressed nationalities. And 36 percent attend schools where minority enrollment stands at 90–100 percent. Conservative researcher Jay Greene reported in a study that 55 percent of children in public schools attended classes where 90 percent of the students came from a single ethnic group.
In concurring with the majority, Clarence Thomas, a right-wing justice of the Supreme Court who is an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, used quotes from Frederick Douglas and from the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
"Despite this court’s observation nearly 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education that ‘it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education,’ (1954) urban children have been forced into a system that continually fails them," he wrote.
"At the time of Reconstruction, blacks considered public education ‘a matter of personal liberation and a necessary function of a free society.’ Today, however, the promise of public education has failed poor inner-city blacks," he wrote. "Just as blacks supported public education during Reconstruction, many blacks and other minorities now support school choice programs because they provide the greatest educational opportunities for their children in struggling communities."
Calling Constitutional objections to the use of vouchers for private or religious schools "formalistic," Thomas wrote that universal public education is a "romanticized ideal" that only "resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers." Meanwhile, he asserted, "poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society."
Picking up on this theme, President Bush told a rally in Cleveland that the Supreme Court ruling was "just as historic" as the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Bush sought to include vouchers in a recent federal education bill, but withdrew them due to lack of Congressional support.
Bush asserted that the court ruling declared that "our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can’t. And that’s just as historic." The president added that vouchers are a "constructive approach to improving public education."
The Supreme Court decision is part of a series of measures that have weakened public education under the banner of "school choice." Some 2,500 charter schools--private educational facilities that are funded by the government--have opened in the last decade. In addition, an increasing number of school systems, most recently Philadelphia’s, have turned over control of their schools to multimillion dollar businesses like Edison Schools Inc., which now run more than 100 schools with 75,000 students in 22 states.
Separation of church and state
The dissenting justices largely focused their fire on the separation of the church and state. Justice Stephen Breyer argued against the decision, saying it provided public funds "to a core function of the church: the teaching of religious truths to young children."
John Stevens dissented, saying, "Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy."
Both Justices Stevens and Breyer worried that the consequences of the ruling could open up "religious strife" in the United States. Breyer pointed out that the Cleveland program requires religious schools to accept students of all religions and that no school "advocate or foster unlawful behavior or teach hatred of any person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion." A superintendent of the schools can revoke a school’s license if he or she determines it has violated one of these regulations.
"How are state officials to adjudicate claims that one religion or another is advocating, for example, civil disobedience in response to unjust laws, the use of illegal drugs in a religious ceremony, or resort to force to call attention to what it views as an immoral social practice?" Breyer asked.
Citing the "conflict in the Middle East or the war on terrorism," Breyer asked how will the state respond to funding schools run by religions that take controversial stands on such issues.
"Efforts to respond to these problems not only will seriously entangle church and state," Breyer wrote, "but also will promote division among religious groups, as one group or another fears (often legitimately) that it will receive unfair treatment at the hands of the government."
"In a society as religiously diverse as ours, the court has recognized that we must rely on the Religion Clause of the First Amendment to protect against religious strife, particularly when what is at issue is an area as central to religious belief as the shaping through primary education, of the next generation’s minds and spirits."
Breyer concludes the decision "risks creating a form of religiously based conflict potentially harmful to the nation’s social fabric."
In 2000, referendums advocating voucher programs were overwhelmingly defeated in California and Michigan. Supporters of shifting public funds to private schooling have targeted Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, and Utah as the next states to try to bring in vouchers.
In another decision, the high court went beyond a 1995 ruling that allowed drug testing of student athletes and upheld testing of students involved in extracurricular activities. The court majority suggested it would approve testing of all students under the guise of a school’s "custodial responsibility" for the welfare of students.
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