- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2000

"If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner city school that was failing," Vice President Al Gore told an audience in his hometown of Carthage, TN., in August, "I might be for vouchers, too." Alas, Mr. Gore, who was raised in the tony Fairfax Hotel in Washington, in a suite overlooking Embassy Row and who attended the exclusive St. Albans college-preparatory school for boys, has never had to send his children to the dysfunctional schools of America's inner cities, especially the nation's capital. So, he is not for vouchers. They are neither in his self-interest nor that of his fortunate children. However, vouchers do happen to be in the self-interest of millions of poor, disadvantaged children whose parents will never have the resources of Mr. Gore or his parents. Yet, it is Mr. Gore who is leading the charge to deny poor parents the opportunity to send their children to functional schools. In doing so, the vice president is also blocking the competitive spirit that would encourage public schools to reform themselves. His is a lose-lose policy for disadvantaged children and their parents.
Poll after poll has confirmed that a majority of poor, minority families want to take advantage of a voucher system in order to escape the public school system that has condemned their children to what is arguably the worst education available in the developed world. Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount confirming the substantial educational benefits available to students taking advantage of vouchers. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore has turned his back on poor parents and their children, preferring to walk in lock step with the powerful teachers unions, which provide the Democratic Party with millions and millions of dollars.
More than any other idea in education policy, the voucher issue illustrates the major differences between Mr. Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee. Having demonstrated an insatiable appetite for new and expanded spending programs controlled by Washington, Mr. Gore would attempt to solve the education crisis by throwing billions and billions more taxpayers dollars at it. At last count, Mr. Gore's grab bag of "reforms" would cost more than $115 billion over 10 years.
But if more money were the solution, the problem would have been solved long ago. The Washington, D.C., public school system, which Mr. and Mrs. Gore have avoided like the plague, spends nearly $10,000 per student, about 40 percent above the national average and its schools are among the nation's worst. Ditto for Newark and Jersey City in New Jersey. Across the nation, states and localities have raised their sales taxes during the past 15 years to increase funding for public schools massively, with little discernible results to show for the largesse. In the case of many urban schools, of course, the progress has been negative.
Notwithstanding a wealth of evidence to the contrary, Mr. Gore remains convinced that public school systems in the nation's great cities can reform themselves without the benefit of meaningful competition. However, it has been 17 years since a national, blue-ribbon commission issued its report, "A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform." Since then, one "reform" has followed another throughout urban public school systems. And many of the schools are the worst they have ever been, with no end in sight in the downward spiral. Consider Cleveland, Ohio. The most recent "report card" issued for Cleveland public schools revealed that the system failed to meet a single one of the 27 standards established by a 1997 state law. The overall performance was so abysmal that Cleveland school district officials found encouragement in the fact that the passing rate for a sixth-grade science exam increased from 5.5 percent in 1998 to 9.9 percent in 1999.
For his part, Mr. Bush would empower parents. He proposes to give failing schools that accept federal funds earmarked for disadvantaged students three years probably three too many, but at least it is a fixed deadline to begin educating their students. (Seven out of 10 fourth-grade students in schools teaching the poorest children have difficulty reading a simple book.) If after three years the schools fail to meet standards, those federal funds about $1,500 per year would be transferred to the parents. Mr. Gore calls this proposal "a backdoor voucher scheme." Mr. Bush should reply that he would personally distribute the $1,500 checks to the parents on the front steps of failed D.C. schools if Mr. Gore agreed to physically stand in the schoolhouse door blocking the exit of children his anti-voucher position already prevents.
Mr. Bush offers other real reforms that promise real results. Unlike Mr. Gore, who is content merely to throw billions more dollars at the largely inconsequential, ineffective, feel-good Head Start program, Mr. Bush would reconstitute Head Start to prepare low-income toddlers to learn to read. Mr. Bush's brilliant answer to a question in last week's debate addressing racial profiling and other "racial problem areas … involving discrimination" demonstrated his passion for teaching all children to read. "Let me tell you where the biggest discrimination comes: in public education when we just move children through the schools," Mr. Bush replied, expounding upon the problem he has frequently, and cogently, described as the "soft bigotry of low expectations." One reason he seeks the presidency is because "there needs to be a wholesale effort against racial profiling, which is illiterate children." Quoting a friend, Mr. Bush declared, "Reading is the new civil right."
He confidently explained the tools at his disposal. "We can close the achievement gap," he promised, "and it starts with making sure we have strong accountability." A cornerstone of reform would be measurement through testing. "[W]hen you measure," Mr. Bush explained, "you can ask the question: Do they know? Is anybody being profiled? Is anybody being discriminated against?" True to his primary slogan, Mr. Bush has been "a reformer with results." Texas eighth-graders achieved the fourth highest scores in the country on the 1999 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing test. Black and Hispanic students from Texas attained among the highest scores in the nation in their subgroups. Texas students achieved comparable success on the NAEP math test. In the statewide Texas Assessment of Academic Skills exam, the passing rate for Texas' black students increased from 31 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 1998; for Hispanic students, the passing rate improved to 70 percent from 39 percent.
Nobody who saw Mr. Bush's performance during the second presidential debate could doubt the sincerity and intensity of his views. "There's nothing more prejudiced than not educating a child." Contrast that with Mr. Gore's proposals, which, if the experience of the past 15 years is any guide, will only succeed in maintaining the odious status quo: urban schools failing to educate their students and Democratic coffers overflowing with cash from the powerful, reform-resistant teachers unions.

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