At a recent talk on school reform, Harvard professor Charles Willie chastised sociologists and other leading experts of the 1930s and 1940s for failing to foresee the coming expansion of the civil rights movement and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Willie, who has a booming voice when he is irritated, thundered that the most important court case in education in the 20th century, perhaps in all of American history, was approaching, yet just about no one predicted the coming changes.
The failure of experts to predict some of the most important social and political revolutions should give us pause as we watch what are mere social and political movements today. It could be that decades from now educators and sociologists will be scratching their heads and asking why so many Americans failed to see the inevitability of school choice.
Couldn't we see signs that the failure of schools in inner cities would result in the schools' primary users (blacks and the poor) becoming estranged from the system's primary defenders (liberals and the teachers' unions)? Didn't it seem inevitable that parents would place the education of their children ahead of ideology and begin to doubt promises of systemic reform? Why, future talking heads and intellectuals may ask, did we not expect the public school system to collapse as it continued trying to force a one-size-fits-all education on an increasingly diverse society?
These days even die-hard opponents of school choice are admitting that public schools are failing many youngsters. Speaking Aug. 9 at a gymnasium in Tennessee, Vice President Gore said, "If I was the parent of a child who went to an inner-city school that was failing . . . I might be for vouchers, too." But as the Democratic candidate for president, he is very much opposed to them.
Gore, who has lived in the nation's capital most of his life, doesn't have to look far to see how inner-city parents feel about public schools. Months after a D.C. voucher bill was defeated in 1997, more than 5,500 children -- 13 percent of the student population -- applied for the 1,000 available spots made available by the private Washington Scholarship Fund, and an estimated 10 percent of D.C. students are enrolled in charter schools. The Washington Post reported in late January that hundreds of parents lined up in two feet of snow for a chance to register their children in the D.C. public school of their choice. Choice within the public school system is now taken for granted. Perhaps it will be only a matter of time before choice outside the public system is also taken for granted.
Parents seeking education outside the government school system know firsthand what Al Gore will not admit. Those parents know what Gore's vice presidential pick, Joe Lieberman, co-sponsor of the 1997 voucher bill, definitely understands: Inner-city public schools are an educational wasteland for about 6 million children, most of whom already face an uphill battle in life. The standards for the public school system are so low that there was little outrage when the Washington, D.C., Financial Control Board concluded in 1996 that "the longer students stay in the District's public school system, the less likely they are to succeed educationally."
Even one of Gore's campaign advisers, Christopher Edley Jr., hints that Gore may be on the wrong side of the voucher debate. "You've got desperate kids and their families. One side is offering vouchers as an escape, and the other side is offering three-year plans. That's not much of a contest," Edley says.
Many times over the years we have heard that Sen. Albert Gore Sr., the vice president's late father, grew to regret his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Perhaps Albert Gore Jr. will soon recognize that he is on the wrong side of history on school choice.