Educational vouchers, says Washington Post syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, "are as big a ball and chain for [Al] Gore's independent judgment as gun controls are for GOP candidate George W. Bush, favorite of the National Rifle Association." Mr. Peirce last week took the Democratic presidential candidate to task, if ever so gently, for forgetting his usual zeal for "choice" when it comes to the issue of education.
"Everyone knows why," says Mr. Peirce. "Gore's deep reliance on the politically potent teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Each apparently fears vouchers would undercut public schools and members' jobs."
Mr. Peirce is right to point out Mr. Gore's enslavement to the big teachers' unions. But it's an almost silly stretch to suggest Mr. Gore's bondage is somehow the same in character to Mr. Bush's ties to gun owners.
For one thing, the numbers may appear to be equal-but aren't. The National Rifle Association is big and admittedly influential. But its 3 million members pay a nominal $25 annual fee. The National Education Association has a slightly smaller membership (2.5 million), but its members pay at least 10 times the NRA's $25 in annual "union fees" to belong. The difference in financial clout is enormous.
Nor is there anything resembling equality in the structural clout of the organizations. NEA members made up more than 12 percent of all the delegates at the recent Democratic convention in Los Angeles. That meant that one delegate in eight was a public-school educator and advocate-an incredibly lopsided power grab by a potent interest group. Certainly there were also numbers of NRA members at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. But no such concentration was ever noted by reporters, who ordinarily lose no opportunity to say something bad about the NRA.
A third and important reason Mr. Peirce should not try to equate the two organizations and their causes is that one of them defends huge constitutional issues while the other is almost purely self-centered. Whatever else you think about the National Rifle Association, and whatever else you think about guns and their private ownership, it's pretty hard to ignore the plain language of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." Folks who don't like that foundational guarantee of the Constitution should remember there are others who similarly chafe at other guarantees-like the one for free speech. The modern television and entertainment industries, such people argue, have gotten so destructively rotten that we should dispense with the First Amendment as a means of self-protection. But, of course, few Americans listen to that-and we should be glad of that. Similarly, if the NRA and others who ardently defend private firearms occasionally engage in rhetorical excess, that's the privilege of those who live on constitutionally high ground. But never confuse those folks with the selfish money-grubbers of the public-school teachers' unions.
But the main reason Mr. Peirce was wrong to cast Mr. Bush's and Mr. Gore's "servitude" in the same light is that there's a vast difference between the distant possibility of severe and widespread damage, which is all critics of the NRA can suggest, and the stark and present reality of such destruction, which is what the NEA and the teachers' lobbies are already demonstrably guilty of.
Even the boosters of the public-school teachers make the point. Writing in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch about what was supposed to be noteworthy progress in the public schools of Charlotte, N.C., reporter Jonathan Riskind noted enviously a few days ago that "Seventy-two percent of Charlotte third-graders, for example, passed the state reading test last year-up from 61 percent three years earlier. The district goal: an 85 percent passing rate by 2001. Blacks have shown the greatest gains, reaching a 55 percent passing rate on the third-grade reading test-up from 39 percent in 1996."
They're bragging about that? Just suppose that Firestone Tire Company had a record of 45 blowouts for every 100 tires they put on the road-and then came back saying they hoped to reduce that to just 15 blowouts per 100 tires by sometime next year.
You don't have to wonder or guess where the policies of the NEA might take America. We're already there-and it's not educationally pretty. It is instead a disaster.
Nor is it wrong to wonder how the hollow ideology and worldview of the NEA and its leaders may have contributed to the bleak outlooks of those troubled teenagers who have gone on such terrible rampages at various public schools in recent years. Fact is, maybe both sets of balls and chains-the one for education, and the other for violence-have something to do with the same organization.