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Jewish World Review / June 12, 1998 /18 Sivan, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Wisconsin: a trail blazer?

THE WISCONSIN SUPREME COURT has just offered lifeboats to thousands of poor children in Milwaukee, who will now be free to use vouchers at religious schools if that is their choice. The state Supreme Court has offered this escape from failing public schools over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Note those groups: They are the people who claim to speak for the poor and less fortunate. But the true contours of this debate should now be clear to everyone. Conservative foundations, public-interest law firms and private charities have teamed up to offer a better education to thousands of mostly black and Hispanic students.

At least in Wisconsin, "school choice"
has made it into a safe lifeboat
Opponents of school vouchers have lined up with the teachers unions and so-called civil libertarians to stand in the schoolhouse door and proclaim: Public school monopoly now, public school monopoly tomorrow, public school monopoly forever!

Isn't it interesting that the people who cheer lustily for ethnic and cultural "diversity" are so hostile to religious diversity?

The opponents had argued that the Milwaukee plan, which would allow parents to use publicly funded vouchers at religious or private non-sectarian schools, amounts to an unconstitutional "establishment" of religion. But it's hard to see how allowing parents to make this choice -- for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other schools -- does anything to favor one church over another. And the court so ruled.

This is not spending public money on particular churches so much as it is helping parents with the task of educating their children. It is analogous to the federal practice of permitting taxpayers to deduct donations to religious groups and institutions from their taxes. This does not advance any particular church, though it does generally support religion.

Opponents of vouchers often use the so-called "skimming" argument. They argue that a voucher system will permit some lucky kids to escape from bad schools, leaving the rest behind. There are two answers to this.

In the first place, even if it were true that there would never be enough money to provide vouchers for everyone, it is hard to see how it is moral to deny opportunity to anyone.As one school-choice advocate put it: "If the Titanic has too few lifeboats to save everyone, does that mean no one should use one?"

But as actual experience with voucher programs has shown -- and this is the second answer to the "skimming" argument -- the public schools tend to improve when vouchers are permitted. Competition, that most American of ideas, works.

In East Harlem, N.Y., for example, a choice program has been in effect since 1974. According to a new study by two political scientists at the State University of New York, East Harlem's schools were at the bottom of the city's system when choice was first introduced. But scores began rising steadily -- not just at the new alternative schools but at the old public schools as well -- with the advent of choice. Professors Paul Teske and Mark Schneider told The New York Times, "The data show quite clearly that choice in District 4 has not produced any loser schools. To the contrary, our data show most of these schools have improved over time, suggesting that choice has put competitive pressure on all schools to improve."

The teachers unions, while careful to couch their opposition to choice in altruistic terms, always wind up pressing for more money. But as the District of Columbia proves, spending may be good for teachers but has no effect on pupil performance. The District of Columbia spends $8,290 per student, compared with a national average of $5,528 (most Catholic schools charge tuition of under $2,000 and yet achieve much better results). Seventy-eight percent of D.C.'s fourth-graders are below basic proficiency in reading, 80 percent of eighth-graders are below proficiency in math, and 40 percent of high school students don't graduate.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has just added its oar to those pulling for the nation's poorest kids.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.