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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Republicans move on education reform

IF YOU LISTEN CLOSELY, you will hear the sound of cement cracking. It is the cement in which the education debate has been frozen for a dozen years.

The familiar and tiresome argument went like this: Liberals argued that they were "for" education because they believed in the public schools and favored more federal spending on them. Conservatives argued that the schools were irretrievably broken and should be thrown over the side in favor of a voucher system. Vouchers would leave the poor in the lurch, cried the liberals. How much worse can it get, asked conservatives, than in Washington, D.C., and other big cities, where violence is rife, standards are abysmal and fewer than half the students graduate from high school?

And there things stood. Until now. For the last several years, at the grass roots, private foundations and individuals have been forming scholarship funds -- there are now at least 32 of them around the nation -- to permit poor children to attend the schools of their choice. Most of the funds permit parents to choose public, private or religious schools. And the poor are leaping at the chance.

In Washington, D.C., for example, Ted Forstmann, an entrepreneur associated with conservative causes, and John Walton, an investor in technology companies, have donated $3 million each to the Washington Scholarship Fund to create scholarships for 1,000 poor residents of the District of Columbia. Since the grants were announced, the fund has received 7,500 applications, which represents about 10 percent of the district's student population.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans are belatedly seizing the political initiative by passing several education reforms despite threats of a presidential veto.

One is the Education Savings Accounts bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.). This bill, which has passed the Senate and the House (in a different version), would permit parents to open tax-free education savings accounts. Such accounts were created in the president's last budget, but only for the first two years of college. The Coverdell legislation would permit parents to withdraw money from these accounts for expenses from kindergarten through college.

Those eligible to contribute to ESAs would be parents, of course, but also grandparents, unions, companies, charities and private foundations -- a key consideration for poor children. Each donor could contribute up to $2,000 per year per child to these accounts. Withdrawals would be tax free if the monies were spent on tuition, uniforms, transportation, tutoring, home computers, SAT preparation courses and other education-related expenses.

Coverdell has insulated his legislation from the "fairness" attack by phasing out ESAs for individuals earning more than $95,000 per year and couples earning more than $150,000. He calculates that 70 percent of the benefits of the accounts would go to families earning less than $75,000, and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that 70 percent of the families taking advantage of the accounts would continue to send their children to public schools.

The president has promised to veto the legislation, which is fine. Let him explain exactly why it is, to use the Democrats' favorite word, "fair" for him to send his daughter to Sidwell Friends while denying other families the ability to save money to send their children to the best possible schools.

While he is at it, the president may have some explaining to do on another piece of legislation heading for his desk. Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has a bill that would provide scholarships of up to $3,200 per year for 2,000 of the poorest students in the District of Columbia.

A recent poll by the Joint Center for Political Studies found that 57 percent of blacks, 65 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of whites support school vouchers. By seizing upon this issue, Republicans are doing what is right -- but also what is politically smart. The Democratic Party is wedded to the teachers' unions and the status quo. By resisting education reform, they may be alienating some of their key constituencies.

But it's more than that. The fight for educational choice is a fight for excellence against complacency, for discipline against chaos and for standards against dumbing down. That is not a bad place for a political party to be -- substantively or politically.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.