- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

It's hard to overstate the educational and social significance of the Supreme Court's historic decision to give low-income parents the freedom to send their children to private or parochial schools of their choice.
President Bush celebrated the court's ruling in a speech last week in Cleveland, saying it was "just as historic" as the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools. That wasn't political hyperbole.
"The Supreme Court's 1954 decision declared that our nation cannot have two education systems and that was the right decision," Mr. Bush said. "Last week, what's notable and important is that the court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can't, and that's just as historic."
Although this is a cause that has been championed by white conservative reformers, and opposed by teacher unions, civil rights groups and other liberal activists, the beneficiaries of school-choice vouchers are and will be inner city black and Hispanic parents and their children.
School choice really began rolling in Milwaukee, Wis. home to one of the worst school systems in the nation. A black former welfare mother, state Rep. Polly Williams, turned the idea into a major legislative battleground, only to find that her bitterest opponents were the people who traditionally were her political allies.
Her staunchest supporters were the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and a bunch of conservative legal eagles who championed her cause in court.
The National Education Association union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the liberal news media, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and most of the Democratic Party were aligned against her. Yet she persevered and her program (originally restricted to secular private schools) was expanded to include parochial schools.
The idea spread to places like Cleveland, Ohio (it was their plan that the court approved last month), then Maine, Vermont and Florida. At least a dozen other states are considering the idea and may approve similar voucher plans of their own.
Under the high court's ruling, low-income parents can use government-funded vouchers to get their children out of failing elementary and secondary public schools and into schools that teach and set higher performance and disciplinary standards.
The National Education Association, the biggest public school teachers union, and other liberal interest groups told a lot of lies about school-choice vouchers, but in the end those lies were exposed and dismissed one by one.
They said school-choice vouchers would rob the public school system of needed funds. But the existing system rewarded badly run schools and punished kids who had the ability to be better students. The public schools did not do any worse where vouchers were used. If anything, the competition forced them to make changes and improve.
School-choice opponents said they were solely interested in the welfare of the public school kids. But large numbers of public school teachers sent their own children to private or parochial schools. So did liberal legislators, union officials, civil rights leaders and the others who fought school-choice vouchers. Al Gore, whose kids went to private schools, attacked school vouchers as "an illusion wrapped in an insult." They said school-choice vouchers violated the principle of separation of church and state. But the Supreme Court said it did not because only parents decided whether the vouchers would be used at religious schools or at secular private schools.
Opponents said vouchers were an empty promise that would change nothing. But studies showed that where they are being used, students on average are getting higher grades, and increasing numbers are going on to college.
Mr. Bush championed the idea of school-choice vouchers in his campaign in which he spoke out against "the soft bigotry of low expectations." School vouchers ran into a buzz saw of opposition from the Democrats in Congress and Mr. Bush was forced to substantially water down the idea in his education bill. Parents would be able to choose from public schools and could get tutoring assistance, but that's about it. Not much of a choice.
Next year Mr. Bush will seek education tax credits to help lower-income parents who want to send their children to private schools.
Meantime, his speech at a "Rally on Inner City Compassion" in Cleveland made it clear he intends to use the court's decision to promote voucher plans around the country to reach out more effectively to blacks and Hispanics.
Mr. Bush means to not only identify school-choice vouchers with his presidency but with his party as well. His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is the architect of a major school-choice plan in his state. Republican governors and gubernatorial candidates will be aggressively promoting the idea in other states.
This will launch one of the most intriguing domestic policy battles in U.S. politics today. On one side are Mr. Bush and the Republicans lobbying for wider use of school-choice plans to help poor inner city minorities climb the educational, economic and social ladder.
On the other side are liberal Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union and public school unions fighting to preserve a system that has imprisoned poor minorities in failing ghetto schools.
Guess which side will win?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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