Bush on vouchers: yes and no

Posted: Feb 04, 2003 12:00 AM
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. (Applause.)" 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 all through. 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 desperately needed. 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?