- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

For eight years, Sen. Joseph Lieberman was one of the strongest Democratic backers of school choice and vouchers. Immediately after Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore chose Mr. Lieberman as his running mate, Mr. Lieberman called American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman and said that a Gore-Lieberman administration would fight against vouchers. His passionate pleas to fellow Democrats to join him in providing alternatives for children in failing public schools must have been a bad dream. No wonder voters are confused about where the Democratic leadership stands on education.

Just this November, Mr. Lieberman said of a school-choice initiative put forward by Texas Gov. George W. Bush similar to his own proposal: "We are encouraged by the fact that Governor Bush of Texas has proposed a reform plan that is remarkably similar to our Three Rs proposal, which suggests that maybe we are closer to breaking the education stalemate than some may think and to achieving a true consensus on how to revitalize our public schools." The Three Rs initiative was part of an overhaul Mr. Lieberman was proposing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would eliminate redundant federal programs, provide for public school choice and allow states to choose to consolidate funding from different programs to best suit students' needs.

But he used his convention speech to say of the school choice education platform of the Bush campaign: "It sometimes seems to me like their idea of school modernization means buying a new calendar for every building."

Which will it be, Mr. Lieberman? The record shows that the vice presidential nominee stood with only two other Democrats in a "risky" proposal to give $30 million to poor parents to allow their children to go to the public or private school of their choice. And only a few days ago, the same man said such pilot programs should continue, but that that was his personal opinion. He was running with Mr. Gore, and if the boss says poor students should not be able to go to their school of choice, then so be it.

In so doing, he and Mr. Gore are ignoring the large voting constituency that might be interested in Mr. Lieberman's former initiatives. Surveys show there is growing support for school choice across the country. The largest and most successful school choice programs benefit black and Hispanic inner-city communities, key constituencies who have voted for the Democratic ticket in the past. The country's longest-running school choice program in Milwaukee has 62.4 percent black students, while 68.7 percent of those in the Cleveland voucher program are black. Sixty percent of the black population in the United States supports vouchers, according to a 1999 poll done by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And a Gallup poll shows that 68 percent of all minorities support vouchers, according to The Florida Times-Union.

In choosing to be silent about the programs that could benefit this population, Mr. Lieberman negated the very words he used just months ago to rally support for school choice among his colleagues: "Once again, we spent most of our time positioning ourselves for partisan advantage rather than trying to fix serious problems. Once again, we reduced a complicated issue to a simplistic multiple-choice test, forcing a false choice between a Democratic agenda of more spending and programs and a Republican agenda of more block grants and vouchers. And, once again, the answer we were usually left with was none of the above, and nothing got passed except the buck."

Who is passing the buck now, Mr. Lieberman?

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