Wednesday, January 31, 2001

About a quarter-century ago I spent an amusing evening with an old French gentleman in his fortified farmhouse near Tournan, southeast of Paris. We smoked Turkish cigarettes and drank 75-year-old cognac from his cellar. Wrapped in an intricately patterned green velvet smoking jacket, the old gent explained to me in defiant detail why France would never regain her glory until the Bourbons were restored to the throne.

At the time a few years after the Paris student rebellion of 1968 and the more recent death of Gen. DeGaulle, with France in its fifth republic it all seemed to make a certain sense. After all, he pointed out, even the great Gen. DeGaulle had complained that a country that insists on having 483 different types of cheeses is incapable of self-government. The only problem was that the French people would rather turn their government over to some latter-day Robspierre, than to Louis XIX. I appreciated the old man’s cognac and the splendid, if deranged, logic of his argument. But what good was logic in the face of history?

When I consider President George W. Bush’s education proposal, I feel rather like that bristling old Frenchman. For the last 35 years, I, the conservative movement and the overwhelming majority of the national Republican Party have argued that education is a state and local matter. We have made what I thought was a persuasive case that 10 or 20 billion federal dollars per year and the shelves of teacher-union endorsed federal regulations that go with them damage, rather than enhance, public education. We have dreaded and fought the idea of one national education system managed by the unholy alliance of teacher’s unions and federal bureaucrats. For 35 years federal intervention has increased, and for most of those 35 years the quality of education has gone down. We thought there might be a pattern.

But there is another pattern. For 35 years the Democratic Party has won the support of most Americans with its proposals for a larger federal role in education. And for the last 20 years in Washington, I have sat in back rooms with fellow Republican politicians unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to make our case to a public that, while agreeing with our general principles, consistently supported Democratic programs that violated those principles. The American public, with its practical “can-do” attitude, simply refuses to accept a federal “can’t-do” policy.

Mr. Bush precisely caught this public inflection when he explained that strengthening public schools “will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role in education. I believe strongly in local control of schools. I trust local folks to chart the path to excellence. But educational excellence for all is a national issue, and at this moment is a presidential priority.” No wonder he got elected president and I didn’t. That sentence makes no sense to me. The word “but” in those sentences is an adversative conjunction, appending a statement contrary to or incompatible with the prior clause.

Of course, Mr. Bush wants to increase the federal participation while reducing the federal regulation. I would like to eat 4,000 calories a day, while losing ten pounds a month. Fat chance.

Mr. Bush wants to require yearly state testing, but not a national test. However he would measure the state testing results against the National Assessment tests. He doesn’t want a national curriculum, but schools inevitably will teach to the tests. If there is, in effect, a national test, there will be, in effect, a national curriculum. And if there is a national curriculum, then local schools will be, in effect, administrative sub-units of a national system.

Its true that Mr. Bush has proposed a limited voucher program. But in last Saturday’s radio address he said he was open to a Democratic Party alternative to vouchers. The alternative to vouchers is no vouchers. It’s no wonder that Sen. Ted Kennedy and San Francisco Democratic Rep. George “Lefty” Miller have enthusiastically supported Mr. Bush’s education initiative. Nor is it any wonder that most Republican congressmen and senators will support him too. I have seen the party polling that shows Mr. Bush won the presidency because of his stand on education. After 35 years, a Republican president has finally figured out how to take the education issue away from the Democrats: Talk Republican, act Democratic.

So as the Ministry of Education gears up for its hegemonic duties, conservatives such as I have to decide whether, like my old French friend, we retreat to our fortified farmhouses and lift yet one more glass to the grand old dream or fall into rank with the multitude and march with good grace towards the false dawn that is history’s inexorable path.


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