Hypocrisy is usually the one, unforgivable sin in American politics, but apparently not when the hypocrites are liberals and the issue is school choice. How else can you explain the phenomena of liberal candidates who send their own children to private schools while insisting that poor parents send their children to failing public schools, yet never pay a political price for their double standards?
Al Gore sent all four of his children to exclusive private schools, including his own alma mater, Washington's elite prep school St. Albans. Bill Clinton sent daughter Chelsea to the tony Sidwell-Friends rather than the local District of Columbia schools. Yet, when Congress tried to enact a modest voucher experiment so that poor Washington kids could attend local private schools, Clinton vetoed the legislation. And Al Gore has made opposition to vouchers a central theme in the education platform of his presidential campaign -- forcing his running mate Joe Lieberman to disavow his own pro-voucher position he's held his entire Senate career.
Still, Democrats seem to be able to get away with pretending to be the champion of both the poor -- or in Gorespeak, the powerless -- and the teachers unions. Perhaps it's because the usual political whistle blowers -- the Washington press corps -- are a bit defensive on the issue of school choice themselves. I don't know of any survey that details where most Washington journalists send their kids to school, but I'd bet the family farm that it's not their local D.C. public schools. There are exceptions, of course. Syndicated columnist William Raspberry's kids went to the same D.C. public elementary school my own children attended when we lived in Washington. But I've found few other examples of urban public school alumni among my colleagues' kids.
What makes this conspiracy of silence all the more galling is that the Democrats' obduracy against vouchers creates real victims. In Washington, for example, thousands of low-income children would switch to private schools if given a choice, as some 7,500 applicants demonstrated when a privately-funded voucher program was offered two years ago. About 1,000 of the D.C. applicants, chosen by lottery, received vouchers of up to $1,700 and $2,200, respectively, to attend the elementary or high schools of their choice, most of them Catholic schools. Now, a new study by a well-respected group of scholars reveals significant academic gains made by the voucher recipients, compared with those applicants who remained behind in public schools.
The study, which will be released at the American Political Science Association meeting in September, shows that voucher recipients in Washington improved their scores on standardized tests by 9 percentile points during their two years in private schools, compared with the applicants who remained in public school. The study is important, in part, because it debunks a myth often perpetrated by politicians and teachers unions that test score differences between public and private school students can be explained away. According to their theory, private school students come from homes where learning is a higher priority or their parents wouldn't be sending them to private schools in the first place. Since all participants in this study wanted to attend private school, motivation isn't a factor. What's more, since voucher recipients were chosen at random, we can assume those who stayed behind in public schools did not differ from those who went to private schools in other important ways, such as mental aptitude, family structure, or parental income -- all of which can affect test scores.
A 9 percentile improvement may not sound like much -- and the researchers found a slightly smaller improvement among African American students who received vouchers in New York and Dayton, Ohio, and no improvement in scores of Hispanic and white recipients. Nonetheless, the results for black students in all three cities studied compared very favorably with other school reforms advocated by both Gore and the teachers unions: namely, smaller class size. Vouchers appears to be twice as effective as reduced class size in improving test scores for black students. If the pace of improvement remains steady, by no means a sure bet, black students who attend private schools could close the achievement gap with their white peers within a few years.
If life were fair, all those liberals who oppose vouchers would be forced to send their kids to the same failing schools they so willingly consign poor black and Hispanic children to attend. It's a lot easier to defend failure if you don't have to bear the consequences.