Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2000 / 17 Tishrei, 5761
A three-judge Florida appeals court panel unanimously reversed a trial court ruling that held that the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program violated the state's constitution. The trial court can be consoled by the fact that its decision did not result from hard work--much of it was lifted almost verbatim from a proposed opinion submitted by teachers' unions.
They argued, audaciously, that the program, which gives students in failing schools scholarships for tuition at better-performing public or private schools, violates the constitution's requirement that the state provide "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high-quality system of free public schools." The appeals court, blocking this attempt to turn a guarantee of quality education into an instrument impeding that guarantee, said, in effect, nice try--but, seriously, Florida's constitution "does not unalterably hitch the requirement to make adequate provision for education to a single, specified engine, that being the public school system." The trial court erroneously decided that the inclusion of one thing (public schools) implies the exclusion of other things (private schools).
Next month Californians will vote on Proposition 38, under which any parent can enroll a child at an eligible voucher-redeeming private school, which will receive a $4,000 check payable to the parent, who will endorse it to the school. Well-funded opponents of Proposition 38--recently the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, imposed a surcharge on members' dues to fund opposition to vouchers--are broadcasting an ad that says the proposition would give public funds to private schools "with no accountability on how they spend it or even what they teach."
Proponents of Proposition 38 want TV stations to stop airing the ad because it is patently false. Leave aside the fact that private schools are accountable to poor parents, empowered by vouchers to be shoppers, whereas public schools, with their captive populations, are not. But note this: Proposition 38 would change nothing in the law, which makes the courses-of-study requirements for California's public and private schools identical. Furthermore, many nonacademic (administrative) state regulations govern private schools.
True, Proposition 38 would leave private schools only under regulations existing before Jan. 1, 1999. This is not an attempt to evade accountability requirements, which would remain substantial. Rather, it is simple self-defense: The public school lobby, in its incessant skirmishing, wants to multiply regulations pertaining to private schools for two reasons: to make the regulatory burden so onerous that schools cannot afford to accept vouchers, and to produce, with religious schools, the "excessive entanglement" with government that the Supreme Court considers unconstitutional.
Opponents of Proposition 38 are claiming that this statement in a proponents' ad is false: "Schools are so bad, 4 in 10 L.A. teachers send their kids to private schools." The opponents claim only 12 percent of Los Angeles public school teachers with school-age children send their children to private schools. But according to proponents, this figure is an extrapolation from a survey that sampled only 300 teachers, the methodology of the survey is unclear and the survey was paid for by the California Teachers Association--the teachers' union. The proponents' figure of four in 10 is from Census data.
So goes the guerrilla war, coast to coast, against extending to the poor the middle-class prerogative of choice. Imagine if the intellectual ingenuity invested in fighting the school choice threat to the public education lobby were invested in improving the educational product delivered to the inner-city students who most need choice. That is not the lobby's priority.
In the July 1999 Atlantic Monthly, writer Matthew Miller recounted a conversation with Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. Previously, Lamar Alexander, former secretary of education, had told Miller that "to expose the hypocrisy of the unions" he would like to challenge them to support much higher per-pupil spending in a few cities, but delivered through vouchers. Alexander guessed that if he told the NEA "that we'd double it in the five largest cities, they wouldn't take it." He guessed right.
Miller proposed to Chase "a handful of cities, higher spending, but only through vouchers." Miller began this exchange:
"Is there any circumstance under which that would be something that. . ."
". . . you guys could live with? Why?"
"Double school spending . . ."
". . . in inner cities?"
"Triple it . . ."
Remember that exchange when teachers' unions say they oppose vouchers because they siphon resources away from needy
10/11/00: A feast of retreats