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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 1999/22 Elul, 5759

Tony Snow

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School voucers cause 'irreparable harm'? -- ON AUG. 25, 1999, federal appeals court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. became the George Wallace of his generation. That's the day he slammed the schoolhouse door in the faces of poor children in Cleveland.

The judge temporarily struck down a three-year-old program to let low-income families send their kids to private or suburban public schools. The state gave out "scholarships" in grades K-8 -- 90 percent of tuition or $2,250 per pupil, whichever is smaller.

Oliver ruled the experiment unconstitutional because 85 percent of the students attended sectarian institutions. He insisted that these kids suffered "irreparable harm" because they weren't compelled to Cleveland's public schools.

To appreciate the audacity of the claim, consider the following: Cleveland's system has a high-school dropout rate of 46 percent. Only about one in every 45 students graduates on time and passes the state's basic proficiency exam. And the schools can't meet even one of Ohio's 18 instructional performance criteria.

After Oliver issued his edict, parents did what comes natural. They told him to take a flying leap. The Cleveland Plain Dealer could find only two students of the 3,801 enrolled in the program who returned to public schools.

The local, national and legal press ripped the judge. And the Institute for Justice forced him to hand down a permanent injunction so it could challenge him in a higher court. He sheepishly reinstated the program for families that already had participated in the venture but gave the bum's rush to 587 children who had hoped to escape public schools this year.

Oliver's decision crystallizes three crucial issues. First, judicial selection: The next president will pick three or more Supreme Court justices and hundreds of federal judges. Bill Clinton appointed Oliver. Second, civil rights: Oliver proposed the equivalent of slavery for Cleveland's kids -- an odd decision, considering the judge is black.

Third, the sorry state of American public education. For 3,000 years, civilizations have assumed that instruction was a form of nurture and that schools not only should sharpen minds but also foster instincts of morality and citizenship.

Then the Supreme Court insisted that the Constitution forbids government-funded mention of religious precepts and insinuated that open discussion of traditional values is akin to religious discourse. Suddenly, our ancient foundations crumbled, to be replaced by a New Morality that was neither moralistic nor new.

Schools banned the Ten Commandments and distributed condoms. History texts stopped mentioning the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution and talked of "power relations." Literary studies stressed sex but not romance. And the corpus of time-proven virtues was declared as quaint and anachronistic as the powdered wig or the phlogiston theory.

C. S. Lewis warned of such encroachments in his spectacular book, "The Abolition of Man." The problem with such intellectual revolutions, he noted, is that they're frauds. They sell themselves using standards stolen from the very system they claim to supplant.

The trendy foolishness that percolates through the schools -- the assertion of students' rights without collateral responsibilities, the emphasis on self-esteem rather than on rigor -- is literally nonsense.

Our moral inheritance has endured for generations because it is true. Throw it away, and you have nothing -- no right and wrong, only an endless struggle between weak and strong.

Who can blame parents if they want their kids in classes where students must sit straight, memorize their multiplication tables and address teachers as "ma'am" or "sir?" The courts have made such discipline all but unthinkable in public schools, which now resemble pedagogical mosh pits.

Cleveland isn't alone in its agony. Detroit teachers are striking, in part because a proposed contract would permit them to play hooky only eight days a year, rather than 15. Sixty percent of Massachusetts' teachers failed a basic competency test last year -- a reflection of the fact that teaching now attracts our worst college students. Louisiana and South Carolina want to make students practice politeness in the classroom -- if the courts approve. And now the authors of the Scholastic Aptitude Test want to hand out extra points for "striving." If a kid betters the average score for his or her ethnic group, he or she gets bonus credit. This is the statistical equivalent of a hug.

Need I say more? With such idiocy abounding, education is ripe for revanchist rebellion. And thanks to Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., we may have a spark to light the fuse.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate