In the most significant decision affecting education since Brown V. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold a Cleveland area voucher program. The decision has profound implications for the quality of education that America's poor and underprivileged receive.

Under a voucher program, the state would pay all or part of the tuition of children attending private schools. Supporters argue that vouchers would improve the quality of education received by urban students by enabling the parents to chose where their children learn-a choice previously maintained only by those families wealthy enough to afford private schooling.

A fledgling program before the Supreme Court decision, vouchers will likely now replicate across the country. That's good news for America's poor urban parents, mostly of color, whose children currently lack the opportunity for a quality education. As Professor Lawrence Stedman observed during a 1997 Brookings Institution conference: "Twelfth grade black students are performing at the level of middle school white students. These students are about to graduate, yet they lag four or more years behind in every area [including] reading, math, science, writing, history, and geography. Latino seniors.are also four years behind white twelfth graders.the conclusion is distressing but unavoidable.[A] generation has passed and the achievement of educational equality remains an elusive dream."

Not surprisingly, a 1992 Gallup poll revealed that 73% of low-income respondents favor vouchers. For many of these families, the appeal is straightforward: vouchers offer a way out of an urban school system that is failing to properly educate their children.

Previously, the school voucher program met resistance on Capitol Hill where its detractors argued that vouchers would only exacerbate the problems currently facing public education. They contended that parental choice would be tantamount to abandoning bad schools (as opposed to keeping in tact their tradition of failure). They also argued that parents might not be competent enough to choose the best school for their children.

Not coincidentally, none of the politicians arguing against the voucher legislation, sent their own children to public schools. Including President Clinton who failed to support legislation that would have given disadvantage parents the opportunity to send their children to a private school, just as the president did for his own daughter.

It should however be observed that those politicians who most vigorously opposed vouchers-mostly democrats-stood to lose quite a few votes by alienating the powerful teacher's union, which opposed the vouchers movement for basic reasons of self preservation. Consequently, the democrats have favored the sort education reform that consists largely of throwing more money at the problem. For perspective on how this brand of education reform works, consider the District of Columbia, which allocates between $7,000 and $10,000 per student (more than the national average). Yet, over 60% of the District's graduating class score below basic levels in reading and math.

Get it? Increased funding alone cannot ameliorate the education crisis in this country because it does not confront the fact that the public school system is, in effect, a monopoly. That is to say, public schools do not compete for a consumer base and therefore have no real consequence for failure. Giving parents a choice as to where their children learn, however would suddenly make public education directly accountable to the consumer. Faced with the prospect of fleeing parents, schools would have to get their act together or risk losing their customer base.

The major implication: With today's Supreme Court decision, we will no longer write off entire generations of poor students just by virtue of their geography. That bodes well not only for education reform, but also for the complex struggle for social equality.

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