Vouchers and votes

Posted: Oct 15, 2003 12:00 AM

During a recent visit to Washington, I was told by a high official there that he had posed this question to Democrats: "Why are you so opposed to vouchers?"

The reply: "We aren't going to give you guys a victory."

If you stop and think about it, if the Democrats allow the Republicans to pass a bill that will make vouchers available all across America, that could create a huge political problem for the Democrats at the next election and for years thereafter.

First of all, vouchers would alienate one of the Democrats' biggest financial contributors, the teachers' unions. These unions also supply much manpower and phone banks to get out the votes on election nights. Losing their support would be a huge loss.

Then there is the support of blacks, who are the group that votes most dependably and most overwhelmingly for Democrats. But what if a Republican-sponsored bill creates vouchers that allow black children to escape the terrible schools that so many attend?

Since voucher schools will not have to accept hoodlums, they will tend to be safer places, even if the education they offer is no better. But studies have already indicated that there are better educational results as well.

Not all black parents will send their children to private schools with their vouchers and not all those that do will vote Republican at the next election. But once it becomes apparent that vouchers offer some escape from the worst schools, word is going to spread. Moreover, Republicans can point out that Democrats fought against vouchers, tooth and nail, for years.

This does not mean that most blacks would vote Republican. Chances are the Democrats would continue to win a majority of the black votes for some time to come. But, in a country as evenly divided politically as America is today, Democrats could be ruined if their current 90 percent of the black vote erodes to 75 percent. Democrats are already in trouble among white voters, so they need every black vote they can get to offset that.

In short, giving the Republicans a victory on vouchers could mean giving them many victories in future elections, where the difference between winning and losing is a few percentage points. That includes elections for President of the United States.

Whatever the shortcomings of politicians, they can count votes. Sometimes that is all they can do or want to do.

What about the future of a whole generation of young blacks? Not even the Congressional Black Caucus puts that ahead of maintaining political support from the teachers' unions.

Here and there isolated individuals within the Democratic Party have apparently let concern for the future of the next generation of blacks cause them to back off from their opposition to vouchers. The mayor of Washington, D.C., is one of these. So is Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.

One of the tragedies of the public schools is that they have become so enmeshed in bureaucratic rules and constrained by court decisions that they can do little to prevent a handful of classroom clowns and hoodlums from making it virtually impossible to educate other students in many ghetto schools.

Nor can public schools get rid of even a grossly incompetent teacher without administrative and legal processes that can drag on forever and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Public schools are also trapped in rigid hiring rules that keep out highly qualified people who have not suffered through enough mind-numbing education courses to be called "certified."

Private schools, and to some extent charter schools, escape these rigidities. Teachers' unions and others in the education establishment say that it is "unfair" that public schools have to compete with other institutions that do not have these and other bureaucratic and legal handicaps.

Fairness applies to people. Institutions are just means to an end -- serving people. If other institutions can get the job done better, then that is the way to go. Maybe vouchers and charter schools can give teachers' unions incentives to try to free the public schools from their handicaps, instead of trying to impose the same handicaps on other schools, in the name of "fairness."

The greatest unfairness today is denying a decent education to poor children, for whom that is often their only way out of poverty.