Slouching on Principle

March 1, 2004 • Commentary
This article appeared on Nation​al​re​view​.com on March 1, 2004.

You know the Left has been defeated on an issue when you hear “President Bartlet” of The West Wing embrace the conservative position. This past week’s episode contained a D.C.-voucher storyline that closely follows current politics — an African‐​American mayor breaks party ranks to stand with the desperate parents of children wasting in a failing school system. The equity argument for vouchers was forcefully argued and humanized through the tough but somehow saintly presidential aide “Charlie” — a supremely talented survivor of D.C. schools who understands the value of choice and the hollow ring of the public‐​school system’s continual promises of reform. The plot was believable because it faithfully reflected reality. But then my disbelief came clattering to the floor from where it had been suspended. The Democratic president signed the bill.

Of course, no real Democratic president could ever sign such legislation. No real Democratic president could ever give the faintest touch of support to the notion that maybe, just maybe, competition might work in education — that poor children should not be subjected each and every year to so cruel a joke as a $13,525 illiteracy program. No sane Democrat, save those who represent the inner city, can support such blasphemy and hope to survive for long. The teacher’s unions are too strong a force, and important fundraising source, for the Democratic establishment to betray. It is becoming increasingly difficult, however, for the educational establishment to defend the status quo.

The National Education Association, perhaps the most vocal of voucher opponents, has calculated that the D.C. school district spends $13,525 per pupil — that’s 77 percent above the national average for a school system that competes yearly for dead last in the nation. The education establishment’s only response to this obvious failure of increased funding is to call, yes, for increased funding as thousands of children fall further behind. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers claim to care about the children their members teach, but they stand squarely in the way of major structural reform. It is quite obvious that money is not the problem — the problem is the education system itself.

The West Wing highlighted a major policy story that has been little noticed in the mainstream media. The New York Times, for instance, buried a brief mention of the news at the end of an article about the large budget bill in which it was passed. The Washington Post gave more space to the program, but the story has remained a relatively minor topic of discussion. This is a wedge issue within the Democratic party, but Republicans seem reluctant to force the issue and transform it into a story with legs. They need to do so quickly.

The fight for vouchers brings low income, mostly black, and almost entirely Democratic parents into open revolt against the Democratic establishment — it is difficult to imagine a more delicious political row. The issue also brings conservative Republicans together with these parents and their few courageous representatives to champion equal opportunity for low‐​income minorities — it is difficult to imagine a more beneficial political image. The public in general supports targeted vouchers by wide margins, and yet Republicans still handle school choice with timidity. What on earth are they waiting for?

The school‐​choice movement needs more political support than it currently enjoys from the Republican party. Dedicated activists, bold politicians, and proliferating nonprofits can go only so far without the aggressive backing of a major political institution. It is past time for the Republican party to force a nationwide war over the issue of school choice. It is the right thing to do — for the advance of conservative principles, for the good of the Republican party, and for the future of millions of children.

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