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Jewish World Review August 31, 2000 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5760

George Will

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Consumer Reports

Stonewalling School Reform -- DETROIT | A Catholic priest, asked how one might come to understand the church's teaching on Heaven and Hell, answered: "Die." How can schools come to understand what reformers think reforms will achieve? Reform.

Opponents of school choice and other reforms, pummeled by evidence of reformers' successes, must feel that the trouble with facts is indeed that they are so numerous. Consider recent news.

Two years ago Californians ignored self-interested fear-mongering from the bilingual education sector of the public education industry and severely limited bilingual education. Now standardized tests reveal dramatic cognitive improvements among English-deficient children, especially in school districts most scrupulously complying with the new policy.

A two-year study, by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, of privately funded school choice programs in Washington, D.C., New York City and Dayton, Ohio, documents "moderately large" improvement in test scores by African American children who used vouchers to switch from public to private schools. The improvement was better than that achieved in a Tennessee experiment reducing class sizes by seven students.

Last week the Education Department reported stagnation in the 1990s in students' scores in reading and science nationally.

Also last week a Gallup Poll showed that almost 70 percent of nonwhite parents favor voucher plans.

However, the best, and often the only, way to win support for programs that help the poor is to make the programs serve the middle class also, or even primarily. The political problem confronting advocates of school choice is that their programs primarily benefit the poor, whereas middle-class parents are satisfied--often mistakenly--with their schools. And these parents believe that school choice must mean resources siphoned away from public schools.

However, some astute Michigan reformers hope that in November their state will pass an initiative to institute measures targeted to fix the portion of public education that is undeniably broken. The program prudently contains considerable comforts for the comfortable.

Such is the resistance of Michigan's public education establishment to change, it even opposes lifting the cap of 150 on the number of charter schools, which was reached two years ago. But if this year's "Kids First! Yes!" initiative passes, in districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students--currently about 30 of 557 districts--parents will receive scholarships worth half (about $3,300) the public schools' per-pupil expenditure (about $6,600) that will be redeemable at private schools.

The vouchers are not means tested, but failing schools generally serve poor communities. Ninety percent of private schools have tuitions that cost less than the vouchers are worth. In all other districts, voters and school boards could choose to join the voucher program.

To immunize the program against criticism from the complacent, it would guarantee that per-pupil public school funding will never fall below the current level. Furthermore, it would guarantee an 18 percent increase in the minimum level of public school funding--a guarantee worth $2.1 billion annually to Michigan's school districts. Plainly put, middle-class support for helping about 30 poor districts is being purchased with a guarantee of increased per-pupil spending in about 525 more-affluent districts. Finally, there would be teacher testing in the appropriate academic subject areas for all public school teachers, and for all teachers in private schools that accept the new scholarships.

Facts--those, again--demolish the argument that vouchers would increase de facto school segregation. Detroit has the nation's most segregated urban public school system, which is much less integrated than its private schools.

"Kids First! Yes!" is spearheaded by Dick and Betsy DeVos of the remarkable Grand Rapids family that created the Amway Corp. In the mid-1990s they organized 4,000 private scholarships for low-income families--and were astonished to receive 64,000 applications from parents desperate to escape nonperforming public schools. Why, aside from the power of the teachers' unions, and the weakness of the poor, does the political system not respond to such pent-up discontent?

G. K. Chesterton said he probably owed his fully positive opinion of Eskimos to never having met any. Perhaps many politicians and others opposed to school choice--including Al Gore, and many Michigan politicians and public school teachers--owe their immoderate enthusiasm for public education to the fact that their children have scant experience with it.

Gore, the situational ethicist, recently said: "If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing . . . I might be for vouchers, too."

Admirably motivated and shrewdly designed, "Kids First! Yes!" is this year's clearest test of this contented country's capacity to address glaring inequities.

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