School Choice Debated at New York City Conference

School Choice Debated at New York City Conference
February 1, 2001

Opponents and proponents of school choice debated their differing positions at the
December 13 school choice conference in New York City, cosponsored by Mayor
Rudolph Giuliani and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The exchange
took place during a panel discussion on the constitutionality of vouchers for
religious schools.


Con: NEA and PFAW

Bob Chanin, legal counsel for the National Education Association, argued that the
only schools generally available under choice programs are religious schools,
because they are the only schools that will accept vouchers as full payment for
tuition. So, he argued, vouchers are simply giving government money to religious
schools, and not providing real choice.

The second choice opponent on the panel, Elliot Mincberg of PFAW, echoed
Chanin's argument that true choice was not available to parents in Cleveland
because the value of the voucher was too low. Nevertheless, Mincberg opposed
raising the amount of voucher.

Chanin admitted the NEA had lost key cases in state supreme courts in Wisconsin,
Arizona, and Illinois, but noted they had won key decisions in federal courts. The
question remaining to be answered is what the Supreme Court would do with one
of the state choice programs that includes religious schools.

While Chanin noted that an individual could use government social services aid for
secular counseling but not for religious counseling, he did not mention that it is
permissible to receive the secular counseling from a member of the clergy.

According to Chanin, the NEA's strategy is to use any arguments and any weapons
it can to stop school choice, because, in the organization's view, choice represents
an "unsound approach" to solving the problem of poor educational quality. The
NEA and other anti-choice groups are relying on the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973
Nyquist decision to disallow voucher programs.


Pro: IJ and Harvard Law School

Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Institute for Justice, pointed out that Nyquist
would not have to be overruled, since current programs are structured differently
from the aid considered in that case. In today's voucher programs, aid flows not to
schools but to parents, and depends solely on parental choices. Bolick also argued
that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment was relevant, as per
Brown v. Board of Education.

"Is the primary effect of school choice related to religion or education?" Bolick
asked. "Clearly, it is education."

Bolick discussed anomalies in the recent Sixth Circuit Appeals Court decision
against choice in Cleveland:

  • the low amount of the scholarships, which effectively eliminated participation by
    secular private schools;
  • the singular prohibition against religious schools becoming charter schools;
  • the failure of suburban schools to participate in the program--again, probably
    because of the low scholarship amount.

Bolick pointed out that only one Cleveland child in 14 completes his or her
education on time, while a larger proportion than this are likely to become victims
of crime in the city's public schools. He accused the NEA and People for the
American Way (PFAW) of hypocrisy in pushing the court to stop 4,000 low-income
children from entering their voucher school just one day before school opened.

"The issue is power," Bolick said. "With choice, parents have it, and the NEA
wants it back."

Charles Fried of Harvard Law School argued that so long as it is truly parents that
are choosing, and not the government, then school choice is clearly constitutional.
In his view, the key issue involved is "the principle of liberty."