If you're one of those folks the polls say are seriously concerned about the state of education in this country, there are a couple of matters you ought to keep straight.
First, a whole lot (but not all) of the people opposing educational vouchers don't really care a whit about the actual education of the nation's children. They have an altogether different-and much more selfish-agenda.
Second, for all the talk, it's probably not going to matter much in the long run what the federal government does on this issue-for the people whose children's education is actually at stake will ultimately make up their minds to do what's right anyway.
There are two main groups of folks opposing educational vouchers. One you should respect. The other is so hypocritical that you ought to back vouchers just to see them defeated.
The group you should respect includes people who think that allowing vouchers runs the enormous risk of handing over to the federal and state governments exactly the kind of educational control that many parents have worked so hard to get rid of. Sure, it's expensive to establish and maintain Christian schools. Sure, it's energy-draining to educate your children at home. But, these folks say, once you've succeeded in getting the government out of the process, be very careful not to invite the state back in just because of a little financial relief.
I'm enough of a libertarian at heart to hear that warning loud and clear. We heard the proverb when we were very young: "He who pays the piper names the tune"-and the general truth holds.
Yet the truly dangerous application of that truth has to do with the nine children out of ten whose curricular playlist is dictated exclusively by the state. Nine children out of ten in the United States and Canada, very often because their parents assume they can't possibly afford anything else, remain totally indoctrinated by a government-school mentality. It is time to emancipate them from such educational slavery.
In time of war, it is sometimes necessary to concede an otherwise sound position to gain a larger strategic advantage. Such a time has come in the funding of education. Yes, it would normally be unwise to let the state gain any leverage at all in private-school efforts. But if it helps bring down the statist system, which it will, it will be worth the temporary compromise-and the short-term risks. I hope the good folks who understandably oppose vouchers on principial grounds will agree.
The group deserving no respect for their opposition to vouchers includes the politicians and the teachers' unions who put such incessant pressure on the politicians. The most recent blatant example of such recalcitrance was in Washington, D.C., itself, where a modest proposal to award some educational choice to a relative handful of low-income and working-class families has been shot down. The public-school teachers, clearly more committed to job security than to the children they teach, were backed by the Clinton administration-and by powerful legislators like Sen. Edward Kennedy-in precluding even a few experimental vouchers.
In Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio, the same thing has happened. Mighty educational gatekeepers work overtime to slam shut the door of opportunity on anything resembling an experiment that might loosen the 9-1 monopolistic advantage of state education.
The good news is, though, that those mighty gatekeepers don't have the final word. Just as the powerful tyrants of Moscow couldn't, in the end, deny the impulses of the people who desperately wanted freedom from communism, so today the yearning of common people for education that works will produce a whole series of end runs around the educrats who think they know so much. Expect to see a whole series of such end runs in 1998.
"It's the story of the U.S. car industry after Japan kicked their butts," says Rev. Floyd Flake, a liberal Democrat who retired from the U.S. Congress last year to spend more time promoting competition in education. "Let's hope choice in education forces the public schools to do the same thing." We've mentioned several times in this space how the educational desperation of poor blacks might be the unexpected catalyst that brings down the mighty educational empires everyone tended to think were indestructible. That possibility gets more likely month by month. Just four months ago, the public-school board in Milwaukee unanimously signed a fundraising letter seeking support for a privately funded program that places low-income students in private schools. "Low-income and minority students," the board stated bluntly in its letter, "remain especially disadvantaged by a lack of excellent choices with the Milwaukee Public Schools."
When public-school boards start sending out fund appeals like that, you know a revolution is in progress. There will be injuries and casualties, just as there are in any war. But the new freedom for everyone on the other side will make it all very much worthwhile.