Friday, January 21, 2005

President Bush has become, quite rightly, an evangelist for the virtues of private property, speaking about an “ownership society” just about everywhere he goes. Just about everywhere, that is, except when he visits a government-owned school. Then he is a big-government man.

Consider back-to-back speeches the president gave last week. On Jan. 11 in Washington, D.C., he promoted his excellent plan to create personally owned retirement accounts as a part of Social Security reform. The next day, at a public high school in suburban Virginia, he proposed new spending for the Education Department’s No Child Left Behind Act.

“I love promoting ownership in America,” Mr. Bush said in his Social Security speech. “I like the idea of encouraging more people to say ‘I own my own home,’ ‘I own my own business,’ ‘I own and manage my health accounts,’ and now ‘I own a significant part of my retirement account.’ Promoting ownership in America makes sense to me, to make sure people continue to have a vital stake in the future of our country.”

But the next day at J.E.B. Stuart High School, the president said nothing about encouraging parents to “own” their children’s education. In fact, the word “ownership” did not cross his lips. The word “billion” did, however.

“Today,” Mr. Bush said, “I propose a $1.5 billion initiative to help every high school student graduate with the skills necessary to succeed.” Under the same proposal, states would be required to administer annual tests in reading and math to public school students in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. (No Child Left Behind already requires math and reading tests for public school students in the third through eighth grades.)

But spending more federal money and mandating tests fulfills only part of the education plan Mr. Bush proposed when he first ran for president. Back then, he also said he wanted to give vouchers to parents of children in persistently failing public schools so they could send their children to private or religious schools instead.

Yet, the day after Mr. Bush’s 2001 Inauguration, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said: “Vouchers won’t be the top priority of this administration.”

A few days later, the New York Times ran the headline: “In first radio address, Bush softens on school vouchers.” “Others suggest different approaches,” Mr. Bush said in the address, “and I am willing to listen.”

Not surprisingly, the No Child Left Behind Act Mr. Bush signed that year included only a tiny, mocking gesture to school choice: Parents of children in persistently failing government-owned schools would be allowed to send their children to other government-owned schools.

But increases in federal education spending have been huge. Mr. Bush has grown the Education Department from $35.7 billion in fiscal 2001 (President Clinton’s last budget) to $57 billion this year.

Even under Republican leadership, primary and secondary education in America has remained essentially a socialist enterprise: Government owns the major means of production.

As in all socialist regimes, this one redistributes wealth in perverse ways. America’s education bureaucracy takes money from working and middle-class families who sacrifice to send their children to religious schools (because they prefer the values and perspectives taught there to those taught in government-owned schools) and spends it for the benefit of those rich families who don’t mind sending their children to the government-owned schools in their neighborhoods.

Parents who struggle to scrape together the tuition to send their children to religious schools are now doubly taxed — locally and federally — to support government-owned schools they do not like and do not use.

When “moderate” Bob Dole was the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, he ran on a platform calling for abolition of the federal Education Department because the Constitution does not grant the federal government a role in primary and secondary education.

Conservatives in Congress should fight to kill Mr. Bush’s new federal education spending plan and return to the principles of the Dole platform and the U.S. Constitution. If every American family cannot instantly be given sole ownership of their children’s schooling, at least they shouldn’t have to pay twice for the schools the government insists on owning.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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