School Kids Become Vote-Winners

Article excerpt

Those who doubt two of my leitmotifs in this column -- that this is a decidedly foreign country, and one that is riddled with class prejudice and privilege -- should have been where I was last weekend. In the Wasp inner citadel of Hobe Sound in Florida, spiritual home of George Bush Sr as well as his Boy George, I found myself listening -- I jest not -- to the Yale Whiffenpoofs.

Now, bizarrely unfamiliar though this may sound, the Whiffenpoofs are known intimately in the world of US privileged Waspdom. They consist of a group of 14 Yale male undergraduates who dress up in morning coats, bow ties and white gloves -- and proceed to sing determinedly middle- and lower-brow songs in close a cappella harmonies.

They were on their way back from a tour of Brazil, stopping off because of Yale connections -- Bush Sr was a Yalie -- to entertain us on a hot Florida afternoon in a way that managed to be both socially exclusive and heartbreakingly banal. In the very PC make-up of the 2000 Whiffenpoofs, the one black member said: "I'm from Harlem" -- resulting in a palpable frisson of alarm sweeping among the assembled Wasps.

The last time I reported from there, we left Little Boy Jeb, 45--Boy George's kid brother and Governor of Florida since 1998 -- mulling over Christmas how he could execute more people. Now Florida has switched from its troublesome electric chair to lethal injection, and the two brothers will (as I predicted) soon be engaged in a little light-hearted fraternal battle over who can kill the most in a year.

This time, as Florida is besieged by holidaymakers determinedly enjoying their "spring break", Jeb is wrestling with a problem with major ramifications for the whole country--and one that may well become a flashpoint in the presidential campaign between his brother and Al Gore.

Last year, Jeb initiated the most ambitious "voucher" programme for schools in the country; but a few days ago, a judge -- citing Florida's constitution, which requires the state to maintain a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools" -- declared the policy to be unconstitutional, saying that "tax dollars may not be used to send the children of this state to private schools". Put briefly, Jeb's "opportunity scholarship program" meant that each of the state's 3,000 schools would be graded each year--and pupils at those awarded an F in two out of four consecutive years would be entitled to a $3,389 voucher. This could then be used by parents to take them away from the bad school and put them into a private or church school.

The idea, first proposed by Milton Friedman in 1955 and alternately embraced since by left and right, took off in the 1990s: from 300 kids in Milwaukee in 1990, there are now 63,840 schoolchildren in 31 states across the country whose education is at least partly funded by vouchers. …