Liberals Against Choice


by PETE DU PONT

Lenin once said that he would rather have everyone in Russia die of hunger than allow free trade in grain.

That pretty much sums up the thinking of Sens. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R., Pa.). They and other liberal school-choice opponents are now lining up to filibuster a bill that would give some 2,000 low- and middle-income students in the District of Columbia $7,500 vouchers to attend the private or parochial school of their choice. Their thinking seems to be that it is better to lock children into the worst public schools than to give them a choice.

Of courses, Senate liberals have no problem supporting the 11 other federal voucher programs--the GI Bill, Pell grants, food stamps, day-care vouchers and so forth. And among senators who have or have had school-age children, 46% chose private schools, according to a Heritage Foundation study. But when it comes to school choice the liberal view is, in the words of the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne's, "Sorry, our principles require your kids to stay right where they are."

If Sen. Kennedy doesn't filibuster the bill (or fails in his attempt), the Senate will soon vote on the $13 million appropriation. A similar bill passed the House two weeks ago by a single vote.

The school-choice debate isn't new. It a new level of prominence in 1990 when Wisconsin state Rep. Polly Williams, a black Democrat, pushed the first school voucher program through the Legislature. Education bureaucrats have opposed the idea from the start. They've claimed that it's too expensive, won't help every child, and is unfair to public school teachers whose jobs may be threatened by departing students. Anyhow, they say, parents are not always capable of making the right choices. As one choice opponent put it, "there are too many parents who are ill-equipped to make intelligent choices, even for their own children." Better to have a wise government do it for them.

Or as Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, put it in a 1990 debate about the Milwaukee school choice program: Why should some children be allowed to "escape" from the very bad public schools they are attending? Interesting word, escape. It reveals the liberal mindset--that they must keep education under lock and key, no matter how bad it may be.

Now, 13 years after Milwaukee began the first choice program, vouchers are helping low-income children in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida (special-education students), and with private funds in Arizona, Texas and elsewhere. Vouchers have been held constitutional by the Supreme Court and proved practical to operate. They are improving the reading and mathematics abilities of thousands of young students. School choice programs are successful, and here to stay.

Of all the children attending public schools in America, none need help more than children in Washington. The District of Columbia spends more money on each student--$12,046--than any state in the country. Yet only 10% of fourth-graders and 9% of eighth-graders read at grade level, and just 12% of fourth-graders and 10% of eighth-graders can write at grade level. In math only 6% percent of the students in both grades can perform at their grade level. In short, education in Washington public schools is a dismal failure.

D.C. School Board president Peggy Cafritz thinks something should be done about it, so she is for school choice. So is Mayor Anthony Williams, who responded to the liberal argument that no child should be allowed to attend a better school unless all the children can also by making a comparison to an emergency room. "If I am a doctor, am I supposed to say to victims who walk through the door that I won't treat you unless I can treat everyone? I think not. I think we have to help those we can."

So how will it go on the floor of the senate? Ted Kennedy will lead the filibuster against it. Arlen Specter may help him. He voted for school choice when he knew President Clinton would veto it, but now that President Bush will sign the voucher bill, Mr. Specter is against it.

It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. A handful of Democrats are in favor of vouchers, including Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Dianne Feinstein of California, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Zell Miller of Georgia. Louisiana's Sen. Mary Landrieu, who like Mr. Specter flip-flopped on the issue, may change her mind again. She's made public statements against D.C. vouchers, but was recently embarrassed when confronted by a black girl who simply wants a chance at a better education. The senator told the young girl that $7,500 wouldn't cover the tuition at Georgetown Day, where she sends her children, and so a voucher wouldn't do any good. Never mind, of course, that there are far less expensive charter and private schools in the district than the elite Georgetown Day. Afterward, Sen. Landrieu was too embarrassed to oppose the bill when it came up for a vote in committee, so she abstained. She may be sufficiently embarrassed to end up voting for the bill when it comes before the full Senate.

Three more Democrat senators may help: John Breaux of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Tom Carper of Delaware. If the three New England Republican liberals, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe stand tall--a big if--the pro-choice forces might get their needed 60 and D.C. students might yet escape the worst system in the country.

Allowing parents to choose the school that is best for their children is a sensible and compassionate idea for educating Americans just as grain markets would have been for feeding Russians. It took decades for the Soviets to recognize that collectivized farming was a terrible idea; maybe this week the Senate will realize that collectivized education is just as bad.