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Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2001/ 6 Shevat, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

It's education, stupid -- VOUCHERS are the red cape held by the matador in the face of the attacking bull. It makes no difference that it's red, but it makes a big difference that it's in his face. What makes a bullfight a fight is that the bull has something to attack.

Finally, we get a president serious about education reform, who cares that every child learns to read, who's willing to do something real about the lousy school. But on Capitol Hill all we hear is vouchers, vouchers, vouchers, bad, bad, bad.

Vouchers are actually only the smallest part of an ambitious package that's trying to do something for kids stuck in the lousy public schools. By focusing on vouchers in the Bush educational package, critics in Congress who are beholden to the teachers' unions are determined to protect the grim status quo. So we get growling and snorting at the matador's cape.

Accountability is the sticking point, and sticking points are painful to whoever gets stuck on them. Under the Bush reforms, schools that get federal money must show they're actually teaching something to the kids, and tests must document the result. If after three years a school continues to fail a child, the parent can take his child, with a voucher, to another school of his choice. The voucher is the ultimate ticket out of a bad school.

The teachers' unions and the politicians beholden to them argue that vouchers will take money away from the public schools who need it most. That's a ruse. Vouchers would take money away from bad schools whose teachers and administrators either don't know how to shape up or don't want to. In either case, it's unfair to make the kids pay for the laziness and cowardice of the grown-ups.

There's already a rough version of choice in place. In the District of Columbia, for example, where the schools are particularly bad, the children of most congressmen as well as the children of a lot of public-school teachers attend private schools. The parents can afford it. They don't call it "choice,'' of course, but their children, who would be an asset to a public school, nevertheless have exercised a choice not available to children in less fortunate circumstances.

Federally funded vouchers, whether for a public or private school, thus become a class issue. Vouchers would give a boost to the children of lesser advantage, affording them the opportunity available now only to the children of the rich and the middle class.

Would vouchers equalize opportunity? No. But vouchers would enrich and expand opportunity. President Carter, with the best intentions, put his daughter Amy in a public school in Washington, trying to shame others to follow his example. He soon gave it up when it became clear that he was asking his child to make the sacrifice.

No one expected Chelsea Clinton to attend a public school, and she didn't. The children of Al Gore attend a private school. So did the child of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is leading opposition to vouchers. These parents exercised "choice'' because they could pay for it out of deep pockets, a choice not available to many public-school parents in Washington, most of them black and many of them poor.

Private schools have advantages public schools don't have. Discipline has largely disappeared in many public schools, and the kids pay for that, too. Small private schools, many of them religious, can charge comparatively low tuition, and vouchers would make these schools within the range of many low-income families. Charter schools, which get public school money but are run independently of sluggish public-school administrators, have made a big difference in many places, but there are long waiting lists for the best ones.

My children attended neighborhood public schools in Washington, for a while. The teacher of one of my daughters told me that she was "culturally deprived'' in the public school, and urged me to put her in a private school if we could afford it. My son's teacher knew only what was printed on a lesson plan prepared "downtown,'' and never attempted to answer questions posed by her students. Such horror stories abound.

Money is only part of the issue of accountability. Better teachers, more tests, higher standards and competing incentives for excellence all come into play. The education package introduced by the new administration is rich with possibility, and naturally this frightens a lot of people with a stake in the miserable status quo. Debate is good, but we should keep in mind what the schools are for. It's education, stupid.


01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
01/02/01: This year, looking ahead is sure sweeter than looking back
12/21/00: Black power with a Republican face
12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
12/13/00: Hillary in the lion's den
12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate