George Will

WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, no longer attends the annual picnic held here by District of Columbia supporters of school choice. During the picnic there are lottery drawings to award scholarships empowering a few children to escape from the nation's worst -- and, in per-pupil spending, third-most lavishly funded -- school system. Boehner stopped attending because he could not bear the desperate anxiety, and crushing disappointment, of parents whose hopes for their children hung on the lottery. ``I'd stand there and cry the whole time,'' he says.

Bill Clinton, who could cry out of one eye, was dry-eyed about the plight of D.C.'s poor: he vetoed a school-choice bill for them in 1998. He felt the pain of the strong, the teachers unions who were feeling menaced by the weak -- by poor parents trying to emancipate their children from the public education plantation.

Boehner, who understands the patience of politics, began championing school choice as a state legislator two decades ago. Last Tuesday the House passed a small ($10 million) experimental school choice voucher program for at least 1,300 of D.C.'s 68,000 students. This bill, skillfully managed by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., passed, 209-208, only because two Democratic members, presidential candidates Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich, were in Baltimore at a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, proclaiming their compassion for poor people.

``I have 11 brothers and sisters -- my father owned a bar,'' says Boehner, who is not suggesting effect and cause, but rather that ``growing up in a large family and around a bar was great training for what I do every day'' -- an intriguing commentary on the House. Boehner understands the privations parents often must endure to give their children educational opportunities.

He knows that D.C. parents are motivated by research showing that the longer a child attends D.C.'s schools, the worse are the child's life-chances. Also, the D.C. teachers union, a tentacle of the national unions fighting to prevent what they disapprovingly call the ``flight'' of parents to better schools, has been looted of millions of dollars, much of it allegedly spent by some union officials on personal purchases of luxury goods.

For years, opponents of school choice for poor children have leapt from one sinking argument to another. All their arguments have now sunk:

Choice programs that empower parents to choose religious schools are unconstitutional? Seven consecutive Supreme Court decisions say otherwise.

Choice programs take money from public schools? The D.C. program takes not a penny -- the $10 million would be new money.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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