The Supreme Court announced last week that it will decide the constitutionality of a Cleveland school voucher program that applies tax dollars toward sending underprivileged children to private schools.
The results of that decision could be so pervasive as to change the entire public education system.
Needless to say, battle lines are already being formed.
Supporters argue that vouchers would improve the quality of education received by urban students by enabling the parents to choose where their children learn - a choice previously maintained only by those families wealthy enough to afford private schooling. For this reason, former superintendent of Milwaukee public schools, Dr Howard Fuller, has dubbed vouchers an "empowerment strategy" for urban parents who have few educational options.
Not surprisingly, a 1992 Gallup poll revealed that 73 percent of low-income respondents favor vouchers. For many of these families, vouchers offer the only way out of an urban school system that is failing to properly educate their children.
The Cleveland program currently provides vouchers for 4,266 children to attend 56 private schools. "The poorest students, 75 percent of whom are children of color, are now accessing schools that were out of their reach before this program," boasts Fuller.
Detractors insist that federally funded voucher programs have the undeniable effect of subsidizing private schools and, therefore, violate the principle of separation of church and state.
Plainly, this is incorrect. Voucher programs empower parents to choose the educational facility that best suits their children's needs - religious or otherwise. Therefore, it does not directly advance any particular religion; it does, however, directly aid parents who wish to have a choice and a voice in the quality of their children's education. This choice cannot be underestimated among inner-city parents who each day send their children off to school, only to have them confront gang violence, drug problems and a tradition of academic failure.
Cleveland's voucher program offers an alternative to this cycle of despair. Countless participants report that their children have approached learning with much more enthusiasm and optimism since making the switch to private schools. Not surprisingly, The Brookings Institution and Education and Urban Society recently reported statistically significant gains in math and reading scores for students in the choice program three and four years. All of which bellies a simple truth: Our children try to be what we expect of them. If a little boy is given some extra attention, instead of a reprimand, he will develop a nice sense of pride for playing the part that his parents or instructor want for him. If, however, a child is made to feel anonymous amongst a room stuffed with un-neutered kids, his education will come to resemble something both rigorous and arbitrary.
Sadly, these points are lost on two of the Supreme Court justices - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Stephen G. Breyer - and the countless liberals who continue to oppose voucher programs. They blindly bristle at anything relating to religion in the public sphere. Their religious bigotry is so pervasive, that even the quality of our children's education falls by the wayside of their efforts to snuff religion from the public sphere altogether.
There is a sad brutality to their resistance, a brutality that threatens to eclipse the best interests of our children, of our future.