The politics of education

Posted: Aug 24, 2000 12:00 AM

WHAT AMAZES some media pundits is that Gov. George W. Bush has seized issues that have long belonged to the Democrats, such as education and Social Security.

What should be more amazing is that education was ever the Democrats' issue in the first place. The Democrats' formula for improving education -- pouring ever more billions of tax dollars down a bottomless pit -- has failed consistently for more than two decades. During all that time, American students have never been able to score as high on tests as they did back in 1963.

Only the ineptness of previous Republicans has let education be an issue that helps Democrats. The Democrats have not only backed a failing policy, they are boxed in politically because they are so dependent on the financial support of the teachers' unions in general and the National Education Association in particular.

At one Democratic convention, there were more delegates who belonged to the National Education Association than there were delegates from California. In addition to the millions of dollars contributed to the Democrats by the NEA, its affiliates across the country can field an army of free precinct workers to help the Democrats on election night.

Democrats have no room to maneuver on education because they can't do anything that offends the NEA. They can't be for allowing parents to have choice. They can't be for getting rid of incompetent teachers. They can't even be for back-to-basics education, instead of the current fads.

They can go in for more gimmicks, like more teachers' aides, more computers, or other ploys that all boil down to throwing more money at the schools. That doesn't produce educational success, even if it produces political success by getting the voters to believe that the Democrats are "doing something" because they "care."

This game has worked politically for the Democrats because the Republicans have been so inarticulate. So long as the Republicans stood around tongue-tied, who was going to tell the public that throwing more money at the schools had never produced anything but more expensive failure?

Democrats have been great at showing pictures of schools in need of repairs and saying that they are going to provide the money to fix them. What they have not shown are pictures of the armies of education bureaucrats, some earning six-figure salaries, including janitors in some cities.

A member of the New York City Council discovered recently that all the walls in a school she inspected had been painted up to 10 feet above the floor, with the rest of the walls and the ceilings being left unpainted.

Why? Because there is a rule that the custodians can paint only the first 10 feet, with the rest being left to be painted by the painters -- when they get around to it.

In other words, the schools are treated like a political pork barrel that is divided up for the benefit of the various unions. Putting more pork in the barrel does not mean that you are going to get better educated children. With public schools carved up into various fiefdoms and tied up in tons of red tape, the last thing the teachers' unions want is competition from private schools that don't have all this baggage to hold them back. No wonder the NEA is going all out to stop parents from having vouchers that would give them a choice of where to send their children to school.

Unfortunately, Republicans have a terrible record of letting the Democrats get away with fishy arguments about how vouchers would drain money from the public schools. Think about it: If 10 percent of the students leave the public schools and take 10 percent of the money with them, how is that reducing the amount of money per student in the public schools?

This argument insults our intelligence by assuming that we can't do arithmetic. On the other hand, after years of dumbed-down education, maybe a lot of people can't. But have you ever heard a Republican answer that argument against vouchers? Nonsense can fly if you don't shoot it down.

Actually, when 10 percent of the students leave the public schools with vouchers, less than 10 percent of the money leaves with them, because vouchers do not pay as much as the public schools spend per pupil. Even so, teachers' unions are going all-out to stop vouchers, because any competition threatens to expose both the public schools' failures and their excuses for failure.