School choice: the issue that won't go away

Posted: Nov 07, 2000 12:00 AM
There are tides in the affairs of men, wrote Shakespeare -- back before we knew "men'' to be one of those nasty, anti-women put-downs that modern people are supposed to avoid ... where was I? Ah. There are tides in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune. Just such a tide is about to start flowing -- I'd bet you a quarter -- in the direction of school choice. Such are the exigencies of journalism, that I write with no idea (though some strongly held suspicions) as to who our next president will be, or what will happen to controversial school-choice initiatives in California and Michigan . It may not matter tremendously who our next president will be. School choice is in our future. This is because choice is in our present. We have it now: except that the National Education Association and its democratic Myrmidons' don't acknowledge or appreciate this obvious truth. We pause, with bated breath, while they catch on to what goes on in the real, as opposed to the ideological, world. What goes on -- excluding consideration of a presidential campaign wherein George Bush supported $1500 vouchers for students in low-performing public schools and Al Gore responded, "No! No!" A thousand times no! -- is the phenomenon of parents regularly choosing where their children go to school: in this neighborhood or that one, in this town or another, in a private school or public school, or in no school at all, but rather at the family dining table. All this happens without government support or approval, and therefore, without maximum participation by families. But it happens. It might be happening everywhere, all the time, save for the teacher unions' inflexible hatred of vouchers -- usually advertised as undying love of public schools. To the unions, it doesn't much matter whether a school is good or bad, so long as it's public. The unions hate choices because it would accord parents the right not to choose the union product and still receive a government-funded voucher for presentation at some other school. The unions contend that voucher money is public money, not to be spent outside the public sphere. But the public sphere has no money that wasn't created in the private sphere, then vacuumed up by the tax machine. If government isn't using the money well or wisely -- as often is the case with public schools -- let the taxpayers keep it. Doesn't that follow? Virtually all the news about choice is good. That's the strange thing as we contemplate the failure of the issue to lift off like the spacecraft Soyuz. Last summer, a study showed that black children who took vouchers with them to private schools in experimental programs racked up significant gains both in math and reading. A new study by the Cato Institute says parents of children in school choice programs are more deeply involved in their children's studies and activities. Yet, by some polling measures, support for vouchers is slipping. Before Tuesday's election, both the California and Michigan initiatives were viewed as likely losers. That doesn't mean school choice will lose out; it means choice will be individual and nongovernment-sponsored, doing nothing to overcome the educational inequality over which so many Americans wring their hands. Parents with some money, or just the capacity for financial sacrifice, will do the choosing. Let's get out of this neighborhood: Go to where the schools are better, such as parochial schools. They're costlier, but safer and more productive. Home-schooling may be the biggest educational trend of them all: a quasi-return to the style of colonial times, before anyone saw education as the rightful function of government. Consequences? There is a widening of the performance gap between students immured in bad, but free, schools and those empowered, via parental choice, to move up the ladder. Far from beating down educational inequalities, the present system entrenches them. The unions, aided by well-meaning, small-town lawmakers and leaders to whom the public school is the town, may not see a problem. But others are permitted to see something quite different. This category includes various politicians who swear eternal friendship to the teachers' unions in return for support. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Clinton, who, eight years ago, obviously had money and connections sufficient to install Chelsea in a top private school. Choice: Watch it at work. No telescopes are necessary.