Public Education Revisited
By Daniel Gilio (e-mail: DGilio@interaccess.com) [October 13th, 2000]

      Recent events have caused me to reexamine the topic Public Education, which I presented earlier (see Education and the Presidential Campaign and Public vs. Private Education).

      Nearly four years have passed since I initiated the discussion of private versus public education. In that time span, a President has been impeached, two Speaker of the House(s) have resigned (one before he ever served in such a capacity), and Hillary Clinton is a viable candidate for public office (we will revisit Mrs. Clinton later). Yet as these events have occurred, the overall state of Public Education has not seemed to enjoy any meaningful reforms.

      Recently however, events are brewing which may at least begin a dialogue about meaningful reforms. Prior to my interpretation, lets frame these potential change initiating agents:

Supreme Court
      The Supreme Court recently broadened the forms of public aid that can be provided to religious schools, ruling that governments can lend computers and other instructional materials to private schools without violating constitutional prohibitions.

      Overturning an appeals court decision in a Louisiana case, the justices upheld, 6 to 3, a federal program that has distributed educational equipment and other materials to public and private schools since 1965.

      No reliable data exist on the amount of aid that has reached religious schools under the program, but private schools of all kinds have received benefits worth at least $12 million annually in recent years.

      In 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that this type of aid to parochial schools violated the First Amendment provision that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

      Interestingly enough, both President Clinton and Vice President Gore had a vested interest in the decision being overturned, as they work to achieve their goal of having every school with Internet access (their initiatives do not make the distinction between private and public institutions).

Al Gore For President
      With Al Gore hoping to succeed his mentor in the White House, education has again been focused on in Presidential Politics. While Vice President Gore remains loyal to the Democratic Party allies (the NEA, AFL-CIO, etc) Some potential difficulty may be on the horizon for another relied upon constituency, African-Americans.

      A preview of the potential thorny nature of the education debate came at the Democratic candidates' debate in Harlem several months ago. Tamala Edwards, a writer for Time, challenged Mr. Gore on education reform. With "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" clarity, Ms. Edwards asked about Mr. Gore's opposition to school choice, in light of his own decision to exercise school choice for his family. (All his children have gone to private schools.) Ms. Edwards asked why Mr. Gore had not sent his children to the same public schools he defended, the schools where millions of poor and lower middle class people have no choice but to send theirs. Mr. Gore didn't answer her question in any real way.

      He and other Democrats must seriously address the disparities that exist in public education. If they don't, they face losing the interest of their most faithful constituency: African-Americans. Al Gore might think he has the African-American vote in his back pocket. But George W. Bush's call for education reform could pose a challenge. After all, African-Americans want good schools for their children, yet they have the hardest time gaining entry to them.

      In addition, recent remarks by Vice President Gore may not endear him to the aforementioned traditional Democratic education allies. During the Iowa primaries, Gore said that he would propose testing all new teachers and allow schools to hire teachers based on their expertise, without regard to seniority. Both ideas have long been anathema to the unions. NEA officials insist that they support testing of new teachers, but not existing ones, and in April the AFT proposed a national test for new teachers.

      In May, Gore served up two more controversial ideas: setting standards for teacher tenure based partly on student performance and giving bonuses to good teachers based in part on student performance.

“Every new teacher should pass a rigorous test before they set foot in the classroom-a test that measures their knowledge of the subject they will teach. The granting of a teaching license should be followed by rigorous performance evaluations. And every 5 years, those evaluations should be used to determine whether a license is renewed. No teaching license should be a lifetime job guarantee. I urge faster but fair ways to identify, improve-and when necessary-remove low-performing teachers.”

      Not the traditional words for someone looking for unwavering support this fall. Add to the mix his naming of Joe Lieberman as his Vice Presidential running mate. Lieberman’s support for “test” vouchers is contrary to Gore’s position, and since being nominated, Lieberman has said he will let the “top of the ticket” set the policy.

      While, Gore won the support of the nation's largest teachers union with 89 percent of the delegates pledging their support to him. "Al Gore is a proven friend of children and public education, and he has earned the support of our members," Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, commented. It is sure Gore will maintain a high level of support from Education labor, his somewhat bold stances one several issues may serve to broaden his overall base outside these traditional constituencies, if only slightly weakening his support from labor (who see only Ralph Nader as a populist alternative).

George W. Bush for President
      In George W. Bush’s model schoolhouse, every student would have to sit for an annual state test, and those students whose schools consistently failed to make the grade would be given a government check that they could use to attend a parochial or other private school. Bush favors block grants to states, but would link them to annual tests for elementary and middle-school students -- although the states would write the tests and decide what constitutes improvement.

      Bush has taken a stance trying to appeal to the Tamala Edwards’ of the nation saying thing like, “If the federal government spends money, say on the poorest of the poor children, we need to ask a simple question: What are the results? Are the children learning? And if they are, we ought to give bonuses to schools for the poorest of the poor. But if they’re not, if the poorest of the poor remain in trapped schools, that money that would go to the school should go to the parent so the parent gets to make a different choice.”

      However Mr. Bush has not taken up the 'company line' when it comes to ideas like bilingual education. He commented:

“I believe people who live and work in America must learn to speak English. English is our common language and reflects our common bond. I want all of America’s children to learn to read and write in English, plus I want my own daughters to learn Spanish. I make an effort to speak Spanish myself. I recognize that the Hispanic heritage and culture are important to my state and our country. 'English-only' says me, not you. It says I count, but you do not. That is not the message of America.”

Senator Hillary Clinton
      The high profile New York Senate campaign will also interject education into the mainstream consciousness. Like Gore, Mrs. Clinton has continued to work to appeal to traditional democratic supporters, union, teachers and minorities. However, her past opinions, like Gore show that she is less of a traditionalist. In 1983, while chairing a committee to improve Arkansas’ education system, then ranked 50th in the nation, Hillary snapped up the idea of higher standards for teachers which conservatives in the legislature were pushing. “Why don’t we have a test for teachers and fire the ones that fail?” she suggested.

      Hillary spearheaded a requirement for a onetime teacher examination. She pushed on to introduce a consumer rights approach to education, and the concept of continuing education for educators. She has even taken somewhat of a non-traditional stance on school uniforms stating “I have advocated it for highly structured inner-city schools. I have advocated uniforms for kids in inner city schools. I have advocated that we have to help structure people’s environment who come from unstructured, disorganized, dysfunctional family settings. Because if you do not have any structure on the outside, it is very difficult to internalize it on the inside.”

      What Does this Mean and Who is Milton Friedman All of these forces seem to be converging to point to either subtle or overt changes in the nations mindset regarding education. With Hillary and Al stepping outside their party’s traditional ideology and George W. doing the same, the time may be ripe for meaningful change.

      Milton Friedman is a Professor who played his part in spurring our nation’s last great expansions. In the 1970s, he set forth the principles that helped Chicago commodities traders lay the ground for the multitrillion-dollar derivatives market. And he pushed for the lower capital gains tax rates that enabled venture capital to power Silicon Valley in the 1980s. So what change does Professor Friedman and his cothinker and wife, Rose think might trigger our next Great Leap Forward. The Friedmans summed up their goal for the twenty-first century in two words: school vouchers.

      “Vouchers would reduce stratification, they would build competition, they would restore control to the people most competent to decide on children’s education: their parents,” said Friedman. He and his wife are so preoccupied with vouchers that they wrote about them in their newly published memoir, Two Lucky People. They have also established a foundation to promote school choice.

      Government controls this market. We’ve ended government control of the economy in Russia and East Europe; now it’s time to end it in our schools. “Why should socialism work better for education than for anything else?” asks Friedman. Public school choice sounds nice. In reality, though, it has about as much potential for real change as Leonid Brezhnev’s agriculture reforms did in communist Russia. Teacher unionization made it worse. The National Education Association used to be a professional organization. When it and the American Federation of Teachers transformed themselves into unions, teachers stopped thinking of schools as places where kids learn and started thinking of them as jobs programs for teachers.”

      Professor Friedman puts this in the terms of his trade: “Simple economic reasoning tells you these unions are working for teachers”-not kids. That’s why state initiatives and court cases that seek to curtail union abuses are so important. It’s also why the AFL-CIO will spend umpteen millions of dollars to halt them, as it recently did opposing California’s Proposition 226.” (Propositions 226 would have required all employers and labor organizations to obtain employee's or member's permission before withholding wages or using union dues or fees for political contributions. Employee's or member's permission is to be obtained annually using a prescribed form. Requires record keeping. It also would have prohibited contributions to state and local candidates by residents, governments or entities of foreign countries.)

      In earlier times school policy was set by a few farmers who met on the village green to hire a schoolmarm. For the past thirty years, though, our nation has been busy centralizing control over education to the state and federal level. Parents need a say; centralizing takes it away. “Give parents the control,” says Friedman. “They are the ones who have the greatest interest in the schooling their children receive, and they are the ones who have the greatest competence in the matter.”

      Merely giving parents and charter schools the independence to set school policy or jawboning about “small school empowerment” won’t do the trick. Parents need to control the money as well. Otherwise the state or federal government can intrude when it pleases. “The fundamental problem is that these schools remain government entities,” says Friedman. “You may have competition in demand. But you don’t have free market competition in supply. It’s still socialism.”

      Lawmakers led by Senator Paul Coverdell (R.-Ga.) have tried to create tax breaks for grammar and high school education through the federal code, with an eye to the plan being a sort of a down payment on a federal voucher system. That’s dangerous, says Friedman. Why? Because it keeps control in Washington’s hands. Local and state governments are closer, so they should be the ones to give the vouchers.

      Some voucher advocates want vouchers equal in amount to what states and localities now spend on schools. Wrong, says the Friedman. Most private schools do the job for less money than government does. Why give them incentive to raise tuition? “Let the market work. And let parents pay some of the cost.” All customers need to know the value of what they’re buying.

How Much Does the Federal Government Matter?
      After recently speaking to a School Board Member of a small local school district, she expressed her disgust at Education becoming such a political issue (at least at the national level). She explained that her district has a total budget of $8 million. Of that $8 million, the federal government provides $39,000 (mainly in matching funds for milk and lunch programs, low classroom size incentives, and aid for handicapped children within the district).

      The state government provides an equally inadequate portion of the $8 million, since the primarily rural state her district is located in has to “spread the wealth” to all students throughout the state. The implication is that rural students receive a larger share of state aide since they do not have the built-in property tax base that urban areas enjoy.

      This leaves the remainder of the $8 million to be generated from the aforementioned property taxes. Presumably, the affluent suburb this board member hails from enjoys a significant amount of revenue based in higher property values. Her district has approximately 12,000 students. That means the districts is paying about an average of $6,500 per student out of the total budget.

      A $3,250 voucher (leaving the remaining amount within the district and thereby increasing the overall amount allotted to all other remaining students) would go a long way to helping an individual wishing to try an alternative school a start. An American Federation of Teachers survey published in 1998 claimed the average cost of Private Elementary and Secondary Education was between $3,644 and $8,299 (with the high end being private academies).

The Religious Warfare Tactic
      Finally, I feel the most disturbing of the anti-voucher arguments is the one based on the idea that vouchers (in and of themselves) promote religious education and should not be enacted because of the inherent guaranteed separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The two statements are almost in opposition with one another, unless you factor in our country’s founders background. The authors of the First Amendment wanted to establish that there would never be a “Church of the United States.” Many, having fled religious persecution, the Constitution’s authors wanted to establish each individuals right to practice their own religion without repercussions from the “official” government of the United States.

      I fail to see how the establishment of vouchers would produce a “Church of the United States.” In fact, one would think that vouchers would provide individuals with the ability to express this religious freedom (which was vital in word and spirit to the Constitution’s authors). Individuals with a Jewish background might choose to send their child to a school which teach academics as well as their time honored values; Catholics might choose to send their child to any of the already wide spread network of Catholic Elementary and Secondary schools; Atheists might choose to send their child to a Montessori school if they believed in the Montessori principle that children teach themselves, with the teacher functioning as a guide.

      All of these options would provide parents with a choice based on their own beliefs and values and their perceived needs for their individual child. The fact that some parents might choose schools that included a religious component does not lead to the inescapable outcome of the establishment of one national religion which individuals must join or be ostracized. Just ask Al Gore, who graduated from St. Albans Academy in 1965 and later (after returning from the Vietnam War) attended Vanderbilt University’s Graduate School of Religion if he believes education with a religious component is worthwhile. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are not as affluent as Gore’s father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., and can not afford the tuition required to send their children to the same type of schools which Albert Gore Jr. enjoyed.

      One last item for the proponents of Public Education to the exclusion of all others. George W. Bush attended Phillips Andover prep school in New England where he was sent by his parents in 1961. So no matter who is elected president, neither will have received their secondary education from the United States Public Education System.

To read the response to this article, The Voucher Battle, CLICK HERE.

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