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Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 2, 1998 / 4 Adar, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Vouchers Terrify Teachers' Union

GOOD CITIZEN that she is, Sandra Feldman is eager to alert us to a mortal menace to education -- school vouchers. Not coincidentally, Sandra Feldman Feldman is also the president of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers.

In a recent radio ad, Feldman warned, "Advocates for school vouchers claim they would do for education what free enterprise has done for our economy." The AFT head countered by citing a number of for-profit trade schools (that "sprang up to cash in on public funds for education") that failed rather dramatically.

"Free-market systems are good," Feldman admitted, "but they assume there will be many failures. In public education, we can't accept that. Yes, too many public schools fall short (now there's a revelation), but the answer is to fix them, not assume the market will do the right thing for all kids."

Fix them? How? You know -- cut another hole in taxpayers' pockets. After all, public education expenditures are only $300 billion annually. And they've only increased 44 percent (in real dollars) in the past 15 years.

Teachers unions are terribly concerned about Americans falling for what they decry as a scam, so much so that when a choice measure was on the California ballot in 1993, the California Teachers Association spent a record $15 million to defeat it. Here is concern verging on hysteria.

Feldman says that in public education, failure is unacceptable. Unacceptable -- but ubiquitous.

The latest indication of the enormity of this calamity was a survey by Public Agenda (an organization well-disposed to the public schools) released in January.

In the opinion poll, 76 percent of college professors and 63 percent of employers said a high-school diploma from a public school is no guarantee of a basic education.

Also, 68 percent of employers claim graduates aren't prepared to succeed in the workplace, and 52 percent of professors indicate that the incoming freshmen they encounter lack the skills to do college-level work.

A New York City employer, quoted in the study, commented: "They can't spell. And there are other major flaws in their memos. The tenses are not consistent, and all kinds of things are wrong."

According to Investors Business Daily, this has led to a sharp increase in the companies offering remedial training, from 4 percent in 1989 to 20 percent today. Additionally, 22 percent of the freshmen enrolled in four-year colleges in 1995, and 41 percent of those in two-year colleges, take remedial classes.

Public education fails for the same reason collective farms and state factories don't work. If education vouchers are based on the free-market/competition paradigm, public education is vintage socialism.

The late Albert Shanker, Feldman's predecessor, once confessed: "It's time to admit that public education operates like a command economy ... there are few incentives for innovation or productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."

Shanker, who also opposed vouchers (common sense seldom overcomes self-interest), hoped that competition among public schools would create a quasi-marketplace in education. This is wishful thinking in the extreme.

The only significant vouchers experiment in the country (the education lobby has managed to kill the rest) is in Milwaukee. While sketchy, the results to date are encouraging.

Equally significant is data showing that poor families are desperate to escape the public-school gulag. In October 1997, the Washington Scholarship Fund announced that it had received a grant enabling it to provide an additional 1,000 scholarships to private or religious schools for low-income D.C. residents.

As of Jan. 31, it had received 7,573 applications -- one for every six children in the District who are eligible for assistance.

Last fall, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives introduced a measure to provide 2,000 federally funded scholarships to Washington children. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who sent his own kids to prep schools, fussed, "D.C. parents and ministers and local leaders have made it clear that they do not want vouchers." For teachers' unions and their tools, no lie is too fantastic.

The response to Feldman is this: If vouchers are such a flawed concept, if they would lead to a fiasco so palpable as to impress all but the most obtuse, why won't the education lobby allow a national test? Then we would all accept their analysis.

It's not failure, but success, that terrifies them.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.