Monday, January 29, 2001

Vouchers are the red cape held by the matador in the face of the attacking bull. It makes no difference that it’s red, but it makes a big difference that it’s in his face. What makes a bullfight a fight is that the bull has something to attack.

Finally, we get a president serious about education reform, who cares that every child learns to read, who is willing to do something real about lousy schools. But on Capitol Hill all we hear is vouchers, vouchers, vouchers, bad, bad, bad.

Vouchers are actually the smallest part of an ambitious package that’s an attempt to do something for kids stuck in the lousy public schools. By focusing on vouchers in the Bush educational package, critics in Congress who are beholden to the teachers’ unions are determined to protect the grim status quo. So we get growling and snorting at the matador’s cape.

Accountability is the sticking point, and sticking points are painful to whoever gets stuck on them. Under the Bush reforms, schools that get federal money must show they’re actually teaching something to the kids, and tests must document the result. If, after three years a school continues to fail a child the parent can take his child, with a voucher, to another school of his choice. The voucher is the ultimate ticket out of a bad school.

The teachers’ unions and the politicians beholden to them argue that vouchers will take money away from the public schools that need it most. That’s a ruse. Vouchers would take money away from bad schools whose teachers and administrators either don’t know how to shape up or don’t want to. In either case it’s unfair to make the kids pay for the laziness and lethargy of the grown-ups.

There’s already a rough version of choice in place. In the District of Columbia, for example, where the schools are particularly bad, the children of most congressmen as well as the children of a lot of public school teachers attend private schools. The parents can afford it. They don’t call it “choice,” of course, but their children, who would be an asset to a public school, nevertheless have exercised a choice not available to children in less fortunate circumstances.

The federally funded vouchers, whether for a public or private school, thus becomes a class issue. Vouchers would give a boost to the children of lesser advantage, affording them the opportunity available now only to the children of the rich and the prosperous middle class.

Would vouchers equalize opportunity? No. But vouchers would enrich and expand opportunity. President Carter, with the best intentions, put his daughter Amy in a public school in Washington, trying to shame others, particularly liberals, to follow his example. He gave it up when it became clear that he was asking his child to make the sacrifice. No one expected Chelsea Clinton to attend a public school, and she didn’t. The children of Al Gore attend a private school. So did the child of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is leading opposition to vouchers. These parents exercised “choice” because they could pay for it out of deep pockets, a choice not available to many public school parents in Washington, most of them black and many of them poor. (They could look to Marie Antoinette for help.)

Private schools have advantages public schools don’t have. Discipline has largely disappeared in many public schools, and the kids pay for that, too. Small private schools, many of them religious, can charge comparatively low tuition, and vouchers would put these schools within the range of many low-income families. Charter schools, which get public school money but are run independently of sluggish public school administrators, have made a big difference in many places, but there are long waiting lists for the best ones.

My children attended neighborhood public schools in Washington, for a while. The teacher of one of my daughters told me that she was “culturally deprived” in the public school, and urged me to put her in a private school if we could afford it. My son’s teacher knew only what was printed on a lesson plan prepared “downtown,” and never attempted to answer questions posed by her students. Such horror stories abound.

Money is only part of the issue of accountability. Better teachers, more tests, higher standards and competing incentives for excellence all come into play. The educational package introduced by the new administration is rich with possibility, and naturally this frightens people with a stake in the miserable status quo. Debate is good, but we should keep in mind what the schools are for. It’s education, stupid.

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