- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

As poet Alexander Pope put it in 1733: “Tis education forms the common mind/Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.” Or as Nobel economist Milton Friedman put it in 2000: “The problem is how to get from here to there. Vouchers are not an end in themselves. They are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.”

Clint Bolick, a vice president and national director of state chapters at the Washington-based Institute for Justice, couldn’t agree more in his “Voucher Wars.” Indeed, he credits Mr. Friedman for first making the case for school vouchers in 1955 and for introducing the concept of “vouchers” into the American lexicon. For his part, Mr. Bolick sees parents and the 47 million students in K-12 public education denied their basic right to choose and, unless they’re well-heeled or Catholic, caught inside a school monopoly.

But neither wealth nor being Catholic could stop an early Oregon state law, whose passage was secured by the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan, requiring all children to attend government schools. The law spelled death to parochial and private schools. So Mr. Bolick hails the landmark decision of Pierce vs. Society of Sisters in 1925, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law, declaring:

“The fundamental theory of liberty upon which governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State.”

Says our author to America today: Many failing public schools are “educational cesspools,” trapping parents and denying their children hope for a better life, as many drop-out youth drift into welfare, single parenthood, and not a few into prison. Also, many high school graduates themselves “lack the most basic skills to pursue even entry-level jobs.” So again the issue: How to get from here to there?

In 1990, Milwaukee public schools were desperate. Students there had but a 50-50 chance of graduating, inner-city students only a 15 percent chance. So Mr. Bolick helped forge a three-way political alliance of Democrat state legislator Polly Williams, reform-minded Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and the conservative Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation led by Michael Joyce. The odd alliance beat heavy opposition, mainly the Milwaukee teacher unions, ultimately winning a 4-3 decision in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Mr. Bolick also notes the amazing private choice plan for low-income public schoolers initiated by Wall Street financier Theodore Forstman and John Walton of Wal-Mart. Together they raised $170 million in 1998-1999. They drew 1.2 million student aid applicants or about one out of every 50 U.S. public school children; 40,000 scholarships were awarded. Mr. Forstman said the vast turnout was “a cry from the heart,” as low-income parents passed up “free education” to put in their own share averaging $1,000 a year.

Mr. Bolick tracks legal battles in and out of the nation’s courts. In 2000, state voucher initiatives were defeated in both California and Michigan, with liberal organizations like People for the American Way and teachers unions apparently striking fear into millions of parents that vouchers would undermine the vitality of “traditional” public schools.

Traditional? Hear how Milton Friedman replied in 1994 when asked why so many high school grads have at base a socialist viewpoint: “Because they’re products of a socialist system — namely, public education. How can you expect such a system to instill the values of free enterprise and competition when it is based on monopoly state ownership, abhors competition, and survives only through compulsion and taxation?”

Mr. Bolick saves the final portion of his powerful book — his odyssey of litigating crucial school choice cases from California to Puerto Rico — for the climactic case of Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, when in a 5-4 decision the U.S Supreme Court last June 27 upheld the Cleveland voucher system, rivaling Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) in impact.

Helpfully, the author appends his and his Institute for Justice colleagues’ 38-page brief on school choice, with top Massachusetts attorney Charles Fried arguing the Institute for Justice case. The brief itself is an education on education, public and private.

As Clint Bolick winds up his eloquent plea for eventual full restoration of parental choice, he concedes that he and his Institute for Justice colleagues cannot rest on their laurels, that government strings on private schools constitute a real threat, “but that we can nonetheless demonstrate with proven experience that school choice is a catalyst for freedom.”

Hear, hear.

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar with the Heritage Foundation and a contributing editor to the Foundation for Economic Education’s Ideas on Liberty.

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