In a country predicated upon the acquisition of wealth, the poor are regarded with equal parts fear and disgust. After all, they subvert the economic ideal and are always a risk to sack the community. For the good of our cherished economic system, they must be kept at bay.
On this last point, the response has been unified.
When the government began forcing integration in the city, more affluent families were alarmed enough to leave en masse for the suburbs. From this mass exodus, there was a logical progression: housing prices in the suburbs skyrocketed, thus insuring a proper economic boundary between rich and poor, minority and white. Since property taxes have traditionally been used to fund public schools, affluent suburban schools were lavished with resources while urban schools suffered by comparison.
Despite years of busing and other forced integration efforts, the "good school" label in suburban communities continues to artificially inflate housing prices, thus maintaining economic segregation.
Traditionally, this situation has not been too alarming to America's well-to-do suburbanites because they have the financial resources to choose where their children attend school (either by sending them to private school or by moving to a different neighborhood). Meanwhile poor, urban students, mostly of color, remain trapped in public schools that fail to properly educate them. More than two-thirds of urban 4th graders are unable to read at a "basic level."
The major implication: Public schooling in this country remains separate and unequal.
On Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002, that may change. That's when the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher system.
If the program passes constitutional mustard, voucher programs will likely replicate across the country. (Presently, state legislators, due to church/state concerns, routinely murder such programs). The impact could be no less pervasive than a revolution in the public education system.
For starters, vouchers will break apart the public schools system monopoly by giving poor, urban parents more choices as to where their children attend school. That means public schools will be held accountable to the parents and their children will have a way out of dangerous and dysfunctional inner-city schools.
To get a good understanding of what this will mean to poor, inner-city families, consider the case of The Washington Scholarship Fund, a privately financed voucher program dedicated to providing D.C.-area children with school vouchers.
Since the WSF vouchers are awarded by lottery, the program allows an equal comparison between test group and control group. A three-year analysis of the program by Harvard University found that after just one year in the WSF program, students increased an average of one grade level over their public school counterparts. Harvard also reported increased parental satisfaction with the program and a spike in the children's workload and sense of academic expectations.
"If the initial findings from D.C. hold up over time," observed Harvard researcher Paul Peterson, "scholarships for students beginning in elementary school may help eliminate the black-white test score gap."
That bodes well for poor, urban children, the voucher movement and the country.