NEA pressure saps support for school vouchers

By John Leo, Universal Press Syndicate

May 1996 – In his generally upbeat State of Education speech last week, Education Secretary Richard Riley talked darkly about people who want to “destroy public schools” and who “seek nothing less than dismemberment of the public education system.”

These destroyers and dismemberers turned out to be ordinary supporters of school vouchers or school choice, a great many of whom are poor and black or Hispanic.

In part, Secretary Riley’s attack on the school choice movement was protective cover for a disgraceful vote last week perpetrated by Senate Democrats under prodding from the White House. The Senate sank an aid package for the nearly bankrupt District of Columbia government, essentially because one part of the plan could have given some poor D.C. parents vouchers or scholarships for children to attend private schools. The plan went down on a procedural vote to prevent filibuster. Sixty votes were needed, but the two votes for closure came out 54-44 and 52-42, with Democrats voting as a bloc with four dissenters, then five.

Democrats are not famous for stiffing the D.C. government, for opposing “choice” in any form, or even for defending Senate talkathons as a method of frustrating majorities. When it comes to essential services, Democrats routinely argue that the poor should have the same options as the middle class and the rich, even if it takes public funds to guarantee them. But all these normal party instincts are routinely suppressed when the subject is schools and the lobby applying the pressure is the major teachers union, the National Education Association.

In this case, the pressure was so intense that the Democrats preferred “a looming crisis of Congress’ own making,” as the Washington Post put it, to keeping alive the possibility that some poor Washington children might be able to attend non-public schools. As the Republicans tell it, they had the 60 votes in hand on Monday, but the NEA leaned on President Clinton, who abandoned his support for the plan and sent a written message to congressional Democrats asking them to switch, too.

The plan would have left the decision on these vouchers up to the D.C. council, which is highly hostile to the idea. Even if the council had approved, no money would have been removed from public school coffers. School choice money was separate from public school aid, about $21 million over five years, covering tuition scholarships for low-income children most at risk for failure.

Still, the NEA did not want D.C. voters to decide for themselves, and it didn’t want Congress on record as favoring choice in any way, even for parents confronted with the worst public school system in America. Unionized teachers, like beneficiaries of monopolies everywhere, can always be counted on to suppress competition. So as expected, the White House and the Senate Democrats caved in on schedule.

The NEA, the giant dinosaur of educational policy, is the largest single reason why the public school system seems almost impervious to real reform. Its clear goal is power over a monopolistic system, and it will do whatever it must to retain that power. Given its lobbying strength and muscle within the party – almost one in eight delegates to the last Democratic National Convention were NEA members – it can reliably dictate educational policy and key votes by congressional Democrats. And it can make trouble for reformers of all persuasions. As Lamar Alexander once said, “Only a very determined governor has the influence to marshal enough power to overcome (NEA) opposition.”

True to form, the NEA cloaked its institutional interest in fears about church-state separation being violated by children attending religious schools on vouchers. By coincidence, the church-state issue was argued last week before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At stake is the planned expansion to religious schools of the choice program that is making the most headway – Milwaukee’s plan, offering scholarships of about $3,200 a year per student for some 7,000 poor children to enroll in non-public schools.

The state of Wisconsin argued before the court that arguments calling the Milwaukee plan a violation of the establishment clause are “no more than hollow walls” thrown up to defend a failing public school system. In questioning lawyers, the justices seemed dubious about the constitutionality of including religious schools in the program.

Still, programs such as this stand a good chance of passing muster. Since 1983, U.S. Supreme Court rulings have held that this kind of support for students in sectarian schools is legally permissible if the aid goes directly to parents, if the choice of school is freely made by parents or guardians, and if the system of funding is neutral on parental choice of school.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch reminds us that both the Head Start program and public scholarships to college provide models for choice – in both cases, public funds legally follow students even to sectarian institutions.

A Supreme Court ruling is presumably years away. In the meantime, we may see many episodes like the Senate’s shabby treatment of the D.C. package.