School Choice, the First Amendment, and Social Justice

Article excerpt

In the District of Columbia . . . one out of every three students drop out before they finish high school. A new study done: three-fourths of the nation's schoolchildren are unable to compose an organized, coherent essay. All across the country-New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans-the Catholic school system, more than half of those students are non-Catholic, most of them black, many of them with a single mom. They have decided the public schools don't work for their kid, and they want to stop the experimentation on their child. And they have chosen to send their kid to a Catholic school, even though they're nonCatholic. And 99 percent of them go on to college. Why don't those poor, minority moms with their kids, who could not possibly deal with the chaos of public school, deserve a break?

Tim Russert, questioning Vice-President Gore on NBC's "Meet The Press"1

I. INTRODUCTION

An interesting exchange occurred during the December 19, 1999 appearance of Senator Bradley and Vice-President Gore on NBC's "Meet The Press." During a discussion on "education"-they were both "for it," of course-the VicePresident managed to dumbfound Bradley with his unyielding opposition to school choice. Here is an excerpt:

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to education. Senator Bradley, . . . [y]ou supported a[n] experimental program of vouchers throughout the country. As president, would you support tuition tax credits and vouchers?

MR. BRADLEY: The answer is, Tim, that-no. And I will tell you why. I have supported vouchers on an experimental basis on a number of occasions over 18 years. I do not believe that vouchers are the answers to the problems of public education. . . . Every time I voted for vouchers, I voted for it as an experimental basis and I also said that I would not take any public money that was set aside for schools. This would be new money in order to do this experiment. . . . There are experiments out there in the country today and those experiments are in Cleveland and Milwaukee. . . . And if those experiments demonstrated that the quality of public education was improved because of the competition, I think that it would be very difficult to turn your back on that evidence . . . . Well, I'd like to ask Al, if the experiments demonstrated that the quality of public education was improved, does that mean that you would not even consider vouchers?

VICE PRES. GORE: You know, I favor competition, Bill. I favor competition within the public school system. I favor more choice for parents to send their children to whatever school they want to send them to. But the reason I oppose vouchers, Tim, is because even if you say it's not going to come from public school budgets, it does because history shows, experience shows there's a set amount of money that communities have been willing to spend on education. And if you drain the money away from the public schools for private vouchers, then that hurts the public schools. Now, Bill, every time...

MR. BRADLEY: What does that mean? What does that mean?2

The Vice-President went on to insist that, while unalterably opposed to school choice (yet somehow, at the same time, in favor of "more choice for parents to send their children to whatever school they want to send them to"), he nonetheless supports "truly revolutionary improvements" like "testing all new teachers," "rigorous peer review of current teachers," "closing down failing schools [and] reopening them under a new plan," "reducing the class size," and "wiring every classroom and library to the Internet."3 We are now through the looking glass, where "testing teachers" and "closing failing schools" are "revolutionary improvements," but educational choice for parents and freedom for children are anathema.

As if to supply the drama that even a relatively interesting presidential debate cannot manage to provide, the next day Judge Solomon Oliver of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that the experimental choice program in Cleveland, mentioned above by Senator Bradley, was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. …