- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

Children in two Northern Virginia middle schools went home with an unusual homework assignment recently. Officials there sent them off with fliers to lobby their parents about a matter before Virginia state lawmakers.

"Legislation is pending in Virginia's General Assembly," the fliers said, "to provide school vouchers and tuition tax credits to private and parochial school parents. Such legislation would divert much-needed funding away from public schools." The fliers said further that "parents, staff, administrators and faculty" could help the cause by signing a petition opposing vouchers and attending a "briefing" at St. Paul's Episcopal Church near the state capitol. A free bus ride would be available for those needing one. Anyone needing additional information was advised to call People for the American Way, which was helping to sponsor an anti-voucher rally in Richmond. As it happens, one of the fliers was on Parent-Teacher Association letterhead, giving this exercise in special-interest politicking the imprimatur of a seemingly high-minded civic association and the schools themselves.

It is one small measure of just how politicized education has become in this country that school officials would so brazenly employ their young charges as lobbyists to fend off challenges such as vouchers to the U.S. education cartel. The incident gives Cardinal Newman's idea of "liberal education" a whole new meaning. In Newman's day it meant learning free of all ends but the knowledge itself. Now it means marshaling students and parents in the service of a liberal political agenda.

In case it wasn't immediately obvious that such strong-arm tactics weren't parents' idea of legitimate homework, lawmakers in Virginia's House of Delegates spelled it out for all. They overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday requiring that information sent home with students about political issues or candidates be neutral. The sponsor of the legislation, Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien of Fairfax, told Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times that he didn't think schoolchildren should be "mailmen" for People for the American Way. State Attorney General Mark Earley also wrote the organization warning that if it wanted to engage in lobbying, it had better register to do so. The group denies any involvement in the distribution of the fliers.

If school officials spent more time teaching children and less time trying to manipulate them, there might not be so much interest in vouchers these days. But this country's government schools, like the old Soviet bread lines, don't have to produce much when there's no competition allowed. There are home schools, of course, for those who have the time and expertise to run them. And there are private schools, for those who can afford both to pay taxes to support government schools and come up with an additional several thousand dollars a year in tuition.

Vouchers or tuition tax credits put private schools in financial reach of low-income students, which is what makes them so threatening to supporters of the education cartel like People for the American Way and the PTA. Some 25 legislatures are considering voucher plans, and the New York Times reports that poor parents concerned about violence, drug use and poor academic performance are among their biggest proponents. A New Mexico woman told the paper that she had just pulled her remaining three children out of government schools and enrolled them in Roman Catholic facilities for $1,000 each. "[M]any parents would jump to have a chance at a choice," she said.

Given the relatively high academic reputation of Virginia schools, particularly those in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, one would think there would be less need for vouchers; state schools should be enough. But prior to making reforms, Virginia didn't have particularly high standards. To graduate from high school, students only had to pass a sixth grade test. Low expectations produced low performance. The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia has conducted studies showing that almost one-fourth of Virginia high school graduates who go on to state colleges and universities need remedial help. Said Cheri Yecke, deputy secretary of education, taxpayers were having to pay twice for education: once for education from kindergarten through high school, then for a real education when they obtained remedial help in college.

Ironically, the groups lobbying to limit competition to state schools the PTA, for example are the same ones fighting efforts to raise the education standards that apply to them. To his credit, Gov. Jim Gilmore has said he will stand by standards that will strip schools of their accreditation if by 2007, 70 percent of their students don't pass state exams. So 30 percent of students could fail the test, and the school would still remain accredited. That's hardly the most demanding standard there's ever been. Students at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, a school in which 67 percent of the students were low-income and 47 percent spoke a language other than English at home, took the test in 1998. Some 82 percent of fifth-graders passed the English portion of the state exam, and 71 percent passed science.

Why should the education establishment demand less from students who are better off and use English as their first language? Perhaps it's because that establishment cares less about student achievement than it does about protecting a government cartel. From that perspective, higher standards could cost schools accreditation. Vouchers could cost them students. But given the growing unhappiness with their performance, schools would be better off doing their own educational homework rather than sending grade schoolers home with a political variation on it.

E-mail:

Smithk@twtmail.com

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