Pundits, emphasizing the Iraq war question, have overlooked a
domestic affairs innovation in last week's State of the Union address. The
crucial paragraph was this: "Another cause of hopelessness is addiction to
drugs. ... Tonight, I propose a new $600 million program to help an
additional 300,000 Americans receive treatment over the next three years.
Not all will applaud once they study the details of the
proposal. President Bush is taking a stand in favor of providing treatment
vouchers for use in not only secular recovery programs but strongly
religious ones, as well -- such as the program "at the Healing Place Church
in Baton Rouge, La. A man in the program said, 'God does miracles in
people's lives, and you never think it could be you.'"
This is more than words. Just before the speech, one White House
official pointed out a new regulation that says drug treatment programs
funded with vouchers do not have to separate the religious and secular
elements of their programs. That's great, because the most effective
anti-addiction programs are generally those with a religious emphasis mixed
President Bush knows that when such programs face
discrimination, taxpayers' dollars end up being thrown away on programs that
don't work as well. He believes that whether an addict becomes an ex-addict
through a Christian, Buddhist or atheistic program should not be the
government's concern. The public purpose is served when addiction and crime
go down. Everyone is safer.
Having pointed with pride at President Bush's boldness in
fighting addiction, let me view with alarm what he said in the State of the
Union address about education: "During the last two years, we have seen what
can be accomplished when we work together. To lift the standards of our
public schools, we achieved historic education reform."
That statement went unchallenged by columnists I read, but the
honest response should be: No, we did not achieve historic reform. Last
year, the status quo won. Only tough competition will force schools to lift
their standards. President Bush's decision not to foster competition via
vouchers or tax credit programs will leave many poor children in classrooms
where they are not learning to read and succeed.
I've seen the problem close up. My four children have grown up
in a home with lots of books and magazines around, so they've generally done
well in school. But recently my wife and I had the privilege of providing a
home for six months for two boys from a very troubled background, and we saw
the problems they had in one of Austin's better public schools. Their
teachers were nice, but bureaucratic pressures made it difficult for the
school to provide the intensive help in reading that the two non-readers
Their problems got a few people thinking about alternatives, and
the result is City School, a K-8 school my church started in September. We
emphasize bringing together children from both rich and poor areas of
Austin, and then discerning the distinct gifts and inclinations of each
child. That's all very well, and we're pleased by the progress of all kinds
of students in our classes, but City School is a pinprick, not the
substantial competition that the Austin Independent School District needs in
order to improve.
"Historic educational reform" will not come by tiny pokes, nor
by shoveling more billions of dollars into existing school bureaucracies. If
vouchers will work for addicts, they will work even better for poor parents
desperate to improve their children's education. Even better would be a tax
credit plan similar to Arizona's. Residents there can send dollars to
scholarship funds for poor children and reduce their state income tax
payments by that amount.
Competition will help kids get a better education. It will help
school districts improve. It will give taxpayers a break. President Bush, a
leader in other areas, is not willing to take the heat right now on
education. Who will step up?