Jewish World Review July 23, 2003 / 23 Tamuz, 5763
Sticking it to the Children
After being deep-sixed by the Bush Administration after Rove & Co. came to the conclusion that it was "politically unsellable," school choice for the past few years has been on the presidential back burner. This political neglect by a president busy on the foreign policy front occurred even as the Supreme Court ruled that a state voucher program passed constitutional muster. Well, the issue has been given new life on the national stage thanks to the unlikeliest of backers-liberal Democrats. Earlier this year, a school choice initiative for the District of Columbia was endorsed by Democrat Mayor Tony Williams and by the president of D.C.'s liberal School Board.
Parents of many of D.C.'s under-performing schools were hopeful that given the support from prior voucher foes, Congress, which controls the District's purse-strings, was going to do the right thing and earmark money for a 5-year voucher test project. It would benefit 2,000 of the neediest children in our nation's capital by offering up to $7,500 per public school pupil to attend a private or charter school.
The White House quickly got behind the initiative and support in the House and Senate grew--which obviously was a splash of cold water on the teacher's unions faces and other anti-choice advocates. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) kicked into overdrive and put the pressure on their anti-choice friends in power--among them, the self-proclaimed champion of the children Ted Kennedy. He managed to halt, at least temporarily, consideration of the spending bill that would have designated money to the educational choice program. But Kennedy's acting as a very wide roadblock to positive change is to be expected. What wasn't expected was that a key Senate Republican would come to Kennedy's aid.
Thank you, Arlen Specter, Mr. Respectable Republican from Pennsylvania. The children of D.C., languishing in schools that don't perform and don't teach are undoubtedly forever grateful. Conservatives have long since distrusted Specter, who distinguished himself by apologizing to Anita Hill years after his tough questioning during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Now that Specter has gone over to the dark (and heavy) side with Kennedy, it's time to throw Specter overboard.
So where is the White House and all the arm-twisting one should expect at this point? I'm told the President doesn't want to pick up the phone to pressure Specter "if it's already a done deal that he won't support vouchers." Now that's political courage.
All week, as the Senate prepares once again to consider the voucher issue, pro-school choice groups are running ads on talk radio shows blasting Specter and pushing for vouchers. The momentum seems to be shifting their way--even Dianne Feinstein, liberal Senator from the Left Coast, supports giving vouchers a try. She makes the conservative case for local control of education, contending that "local leaders should have the opportunity to experiment with programs that they believe are right for their area."
So how bad can the public schools in DC really be? It's grim. A staggering seventy-six percent of D.C. fourth-graders performed below grade level in math, and only 10 percent read proficiently. And seventy-seven percent of eighth-graders performed below grade level in math, and only 12 percent were proficient in reading. This system is broken despite the fact that DC has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the country. (And the bureaucratic nightmare is undeniable--earlier this year it was revealed that there were hundreds of people on its Board of Education payroll who should never have been allowed to collect a paycheck!)
Anti-school choice politicians know all too well that if vouchers can work in left-wing D.C., they can work nationwide, and will eventually be embraced coast-to-coast. The jig will be up for the unions. Let's face it, the kids need a break. And politicians like Specter, who are more worried about their own reelection than the children they claim to value so much, should be sent packing. Maybe he could get a job representing the teachers' unions. After all, he already has experience in that area.
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