Long before Bill Clinton appeared on the
presidential horizon, he had, as governor of Arkansas, established himself as
one of a half-dozen national leaders in the public school reform movement of the
1980s. The movement was determinedly bipartisan, pragmatic, and nonideological.
In addition to Clinton, it included Republican governors Thomas Kean of New
Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as independent Califormnia
State School Superintendent Bill Honig. These reformers sought, and generally
achieved, tougher graduation requirements; more rigorous curricula and
textbooks; competency tests for both students and teachers; merit pay or other
incentives for outstanding teachers; longer school days and school years; and
better funding for K-12 schools almost everywhere.
But before the decade was over, a combination of recession, budget cuts,
impatience, and political expediency helped start a deep and very ideological
current running in the opposite direction-- a retreat from public education.
With a lot of cheerleading from George Bush, the self-proclaimed education
president, more people began to ask just what the country had bought with its
school reform dollars. The greater the belief that the Germans and Japanese were
beating us in the global economy, the greater the influence of international
test results showing American students scoring behind their foreign
counterparts. As a result, the encouraging returns from the reforms of the
1980s--they were not great, as we shall see, but they were hardly
negligible--were ignored. The schools, according to the conventional wisdom,
were simply failing, and stronger medicine was required.
For the Bush administration, a growing number of conservative scholars and
businesspeople, and the religious right, that medicine was
vouchers--tax-supported "scholarships" allowing parents to send their
children to any school, public or private, in an educational free market. School
choice was also one of the few issues that could replace Communism in linking
the Republican Party's suburban conservatives with free-market libertarians and
THE CHOICE BANDWAGON
The idea is hardly new. Milton Friedman first proposed vouchers more than 30
years ago. In the 1960s, it was taken up by liberal reformers such as
Christopher Jencks and Henry M. Levin and by academics such as John E. Coons and
Stephen D. Sugarman at Berkeley. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan occasionally talked
about private school tuition tax credits but paired the idea so closely with
school prayer and even creationism that it looked more like an ideological crumb
for Christian fundamentalists than a serious policy.
Bush had come to office declaring the country couldn't afford vouchers for
private schools. But by 1991 the idea had become the centerpiece of his
education policy, with the support of respected activists like the Department of
Education's Alexander, former Xerox chairman David Kearns, and educational
historian Diane Ravitch.
A further event that gave choice intellectual respectability was the 1990
publication by the Brookings Institution, home of Democratic brains-in-exile, of
John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.
The book argues not only that the reforms of the 1980s were inadequate but
that such reforms couldn't succeed as long as schools were run by school boards,
superintendents, central offices, and departments of education--what the authors
disparagingly call "direct democratic control." The only way to escape
that, Chubb and Moe assert, is by letting parents choose among self-governing
schools, public or private, with state tax money following their children to the
schools they select, thereby building into schools a market incentive to offer
better service. The authors are uncompromising. "Without being too literal
about it, we think that reformers would do well to entertain the notion that
choice is a panacea....Choice is not like other reforms and should not
be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy....It has the capacity
all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years,
reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways" (italics
Bush's one foray into a voucher plan was his call early in 1992 for a trial
federal "scholarship" program that would give 500,000 middle- and
low-income students $1,000 apiece to use in any educational setting. It was dead
on arrival in Congress, and given Clinton's support for public education, it
will likely never be heard from again. Equally significant, on the same day
Clinton was elected, Colorado voters by a two-to-one margin rejected a statewide
voucher proposal that would have given every parent a $2,500 "scholarship"
to pay tuition in any private or parochial school in the state--or even to pay
for home schooling.
Nonetheless, the broader idea of school choice is probably here to stay: The
question is whether it will be limited to the public system--or part of an open
market system where virtually any provider, public or private, could
participate. The Gallup Poll has traced a steady increase in support among
Americans for some version of parental choice; as usual, the detailed responses
(public versus private, for example) depend on how the questions are asked. In
principle, Bill Clinton supports choice, the American Federation of Teachers
supports choice, the Catholic Bishops support choice, the Houston Republicans
support choice. There are choice experiments in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and other cities, and while their results
to date are both small and ambiguous, that hasn't slowed the movement.
California residents will vote in the June 1994 primary on a broad voucher plan
that includes all schools. Despite its obvious flaws, the accumulating fiscal
and social troubles of the schools give it an increasingly good chance of
passing. If the plan is defeated, it's likely to take all of the enormous
financial and political power of the California Teachers Association to do so.
(As this was being written, there was a possibility that California Governor
Pete Wilson would set a special election before 1994, in order to move it from a
primary election at which he himself might be challenged by the kind of
right-wing Republican who would gain from the turnout of fundamentalist
Christians come to support the voucher.) Perhaps more indicative yet, Chris
Whittle, whose commercial in-school TV news program, Channel 1, reaches 8
million teenagers (far more than watch all three network news programs combined)
is planning to create a national chain of 1,000 private schools called the
Edison Project by the end of the decade. Whittle may be betting wrong, but it's
hard to imagine that he expects to succeed without help from vouchers.
The issue, then, is not whether, but which kind. Will choice be limited to the
public system--with sensitivity for diversity and equal opportunity as well as
academic quality--or will it be privatized, divisive, and indifferent to the
commonweal? There is fairly broad agreement, though hardly unanimity, that as
part of a scheme of other reforms--increased school site control in
particular--choice within the public system has possibilities. However, these
possibilities, in turn, depend in considerable part on whether Clinton can
reverse the moral and social priorities of the past decade and halt the loss of
faith in community that has done so much to drive the rising interest in
Of all the sectors of American life, none seems so driven by the myth of a lost
golden age as education--time and other details unspecified--when all children
went to nice bright schools, sat in orderly rows before dedicated teachers,
learned what they had to know (by first learning "the basics") and
then graduated, every one of them, to become productive citizens.
Just to say that, of course, is to expose its absurdity. Until the 1950s, U.S.
schools were never expected to succeed with all children. Some attended only
five or six months a year and quit after the fourth or fifth grade; many more
left after the eighth grade to enter an economy that had plenty of unskilled and
semi-skilled jobs. Schools, accordingly, were judged not by their failures--by
dropout rates (a phrase that did not exist fifty years ago) or by how many did
not go to college or fell below some standard test score--but by their
successes. Blacks rarely figured into the education calculus at all.
One might even say that the golden age myth is itself a piece of vestigial
racism--those nice orderly classrooms were predominantly, if not totally,
white--but it's also important in explaining our pervasive discontent with the
schools and the calls for radical "restructuring" that are based on
it. No nation, Henry Commager once wrote, demands as much of its
schools--expects them not only to teach reading and writing, but patriotism,
morality, the evils of alcohol and tobacco (to which we have now added the
dangers of drugs and AIDS), not to mention driver education, good citizenship,
racial tolerance, self-esteem, and a hundred other things. And never have the
schools been required to do it with a population as diverse--not to say
troubled--as the schools do now. In 1970, one child in seven fell below the
poverty line; now it's closer to one in five, and in the elementary grades it's
closer to one in four. In 1970, 15 percent of the nation's school-age population
was nonwhite; now it's well over 20 percent. In states like California, where
whites are now a minority of the public school enrollment, one child in four is
on welfare; one in four comes from a home where English is not the primary
language. Los Angeles, the country's second largest school system, now enrolls
children speaking some 80 different languages. Of the 185,000 new children who
entered the state's schools in fall 1992, less than half came from homes where
the primary language is English.
The facile response to such data is that American schools have always absorbed
huge numbers of immigrants--Germans, Swedes, Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks.
But never have they been expected to do it as completely and against such great
odds. Today there is a much smaller market for unskilled dropouts--quite the
contrary in this global economy--and thus no significant possibility that the
schools can forget about their failures, much less threaten to boot them out as
they could a half century ago.
That's not to say that criticism of American public schools is unfounded. Many
schools are mindless; many districts are paralyzed by self-serving
bureaucracies; many teachers, a lot of whom came from the lowest ranks of their
college classes, do as much to sabotage curiosity and thinking as they do to
encourage them. Nothing that follows should be taken as an indication that
things are fine in American education. But many of the common assumptions about
educational performance are wrong.
Dropouts. If one adds those who have graduated from high school (about
75 percent) and those who have a high school equivalency diploma, roughly 90
percent of young Americans are now high school graduates, the highest percentage
in history. Over 20 percent are college graduates. The percentage who drop out
of high school continues to decline--and that includes all races except perhaps
first-generation Hispanic immigrants, who often leave for extended returns to
the old country.
Academic Achievement in the "Basics." According to the
National Assessment of Education Progress, much of the decline of the 1970s,
though not all, was offset by progress in the 1980s. Black students, while not
yet on a par with whites in math and reading, made substantial gains through the
1970s and the 1980s.
Average SAT Scores. Although they sank badly in the 1970s, scholastic
aptitude test scores started to come back in the 1980s, particularly in math.
This rebound came despite the substantial increase in the percentage of high
school graduates (and thus the number of students not in the top ranks of their
classes) who now take SATs. The number of students taking more intense academic
programs in secondary school, like honors courses, advanced placement courses,
and more serious math and science courses, has risen substantially in the past
College Graduation Rates. Roughly 26 percent of all U.S.
twenty-two-year-olds obtained a bachelor's degree in 1987, according to the
National Center for Education Statistics, substantially more than in Japan (21
percent), Germany (13 percent), the UK or France (14 percent each). Similarly,
we outrank other major nations in the percentage of twenty-two-year-olds getting
a bachelor's degree in science and engineering. And since the institutions from
which they graduate continue to draw hundreds of thousands of foreign
students--we are far and away the world's leading exporter of education--the
complaints about curricular inadequacy need a lot of qualification.
Collectively, the data are nothing to cheer about. A lot of students don't know
in what century the Civil War took place or on what continent to find Ethiopia.
American thirteen-year-olds rank at or near the bottom in most international
measures of math and science proficiency. The comparisons may be somewhat
misleading since most of those countries begin specialized education at age
fourteen, placing more emphasis on high test performance in the earlier grades,
and since some teach geometry to thirteen-year-olds (usually taught to American
children at fourteen or fifteen). At the same time, however, even after the
reforms of the 1980s, U.S. students appear to do less homework and have less
demanded of them, either by schools or parents, than their foreign peers.
It's hard to know how much of that can be controlled by the school and how much
comes from our indifferent intellectual atmosphere. Given the enormous changes
in the demographics of American schools and considering the idiot culture in
which our students live most of the day, it's surprising the schools have done
as well as they have.
TICKET TO RIDE
It's precisely the demographic and social factors that are driving some
middle-class Americans to buy their way out of the system. Some parents honestly
perceive schools to be unsafe; the schools can't deal with the diversity of
cultures; the systems are distracted by the avalanche of personal and social
problems that students bring and that no other institution addresses.
More and more voters are not parents, and more parents are not voters. That's
one of the reasons support for public education is eroding. In 1970, white
school children, who, of course, bring the most electoral clout, were fully 21
percent of the total population. In 1990, twenty years beyond the end of the
baby boom, white school children were 14 percent of the population. In the
suburbs, where parents are concentrated and have political clout, communities
still provide lavish support for schools, but increasingly they become islands
Those groups who vote in high numbers, older people in particular, tend not to
have children in the schools, while Americans who have more children in the
schools have fewer votes per child and often don't exercise them. California's
Proposition 13, which was passed in 1978 and which set the tone for much of U.S.
social policy in the past decade, was largely a revolt of elderly people against
high property taxes at the expense of local services for children: schools,
parks, libraries. (This year, about 20 percent of California voters were parents
of school children, roughly half of what it was a generation ago.) Even now,
when local districts attempt to pass school bonds in California, they often
exempt property owned by people over sixty-five from the additional taxes.
The middle class, of course, is not alone in looking for escape or in
supporting vouchers. The Catholic church, whose remaining inner-city parochial
schools are struggling to survive, has been seeking government help for years.
And so have many inner-city black parents who desperately want some escape from
the brutal schools their children are forced to attend. With a modest voucher,
they could afford to attend those parochial schools; as a result, inner-city
parents lead the polls in their support for vouchers. There's also support from
the parents of Christian fundamentalist school children. But it's unlikely that
vouchers would enjoy their widespread attention without considerable
For the conservatives who are now its greatest champions, choice may well have
an additional use. If the problem are the schools and not children, no one has
to concern himself too much about nutrition, health and day care, decent
housing, or the children's issue in general. The Wall Street Journal
editorial page, among others, is fond of quoting UNESCO data showing that the
United States spends more per child on schools than most other modern nations.
But the Journal fails to acknowledge that the universal day care in
France, the German social welfare system, the homogeneity of Japanese society,
or the universal health care and generous other benefits that nearly all those
countries provide--social programs that relieve the burdens on schools. The
blessings that the market is supposed to bestow on the schools tends to drive
the rest of the problem into obscurity. If the good people can get away from the
nasty kids, however defined, the conditions that shape those children's lives
become practically, politically, and morally invisible.
REFORM SCHOOL BOYS
Terry Moe, who teaches political science at Stanford and is a senior fellow at
Brookings, says that the school market is like any other--he recently compared
it to the market for candy bars. People shop around, choose what's best for
them, and thus drive all competitors to improve their products. But there's no
empirical evidence of that. In a study of the one public-private plan
(Milwaukee's) now in operation, the Carnegie Foundation found that while the
small number of students who have been enabled to leave the public schools "feel
pleased with the decision they have made," more than 40 percent of those
who left the public schools in 1991-92 for a private school didn't return to the
private school in 1992-93. More important, there was "no evidence...that
the participating students made significant academic advances or that either the
public or the private schools have been revitalized by the transfers."
Overall, Carnegie found, as have others, that "choice is a wholly
unrealistic proposal for literally millions of children (because) there simply
is no other school within easy reach or, if there is, the alternative school may
be no better than the one close by."
Nor, despite their intimidating statistical analysis, do the theoretical
arguments in Chubb and Moe's book hold up. Those arguments attempt to define
what are "effective" public schools in terms of student achievement
and to prove they are like private schools--relatively autonomous. By that,
Chubb and Moe mean they are free of downtown bureaucracies and thus have "clear
goals...ambitious academic program, strong educational leadership." But the
difficulty of distinguishing correlation from cause seems overwhelming: Does the
heavy hand of bureaucracy generate school failure or is it itself the result of
failure? Is the "autonomy" that Chubb and Moe associate with effective
schools and all the good feelings among teachers and principals that come with
it the cause of student success or itself a result of students affluent, smart,
or motivated enough to make such autonomy possible?
Chubb and Moe's measure of student achievement fails to separate out such
things as student ability, motivation, parental resources (including
predisposition to academic achievement), as well as the general noise of the
surrounding culture. Even as Chubb and Moe seek to link private sector schools
with autonomy and effective organization, they fail to cite any correlation
between private control and achievement. In an essay in the Yale Law Journal
(October 1991), James Liebman even suggests that it may be precisely because
parents of children in private and suburban schools have so little choice--they
are already at the top of the heap and thus have to fight to protect the quality
of those schools--that their schools are so effective. In a real market system,
where schools are free to choose and expel students on any basis except perhaps
race, the effective choice may not be so much the parent's as the school's.
The voucher movement is silent about society's interest in common schooling. In
the West and Southwest, where the only semblance of community is the shopping
mall, the freeway, and the radio talk show, the public school is virtually the
last institution that spans the entire community, bringing together not only
children but their parents and often their neighbors in a common enterprise.
Public schools embody the idea of community itself--the democratic ideals of a
common culture that assimilates and integrates diversity even as it celebrates
it. That's not an ideal that, however short of realization, can be casually
What of children of parents who can't negotiate the market or are not
interested in their schooling at all? What of the need, especially now, to
acculturate immigrants? What of racial integration and understanding? One of the
great ironies is to hear people like former education secretary William Bennett,
who became apoplectic when Stanford University added a few nonwestern writers
and a few women to its western civilization course a few years ago, defend a
choice system that would feed tax money to Moonie schools, to the flat earth
society, to African nationalists (the Louis Farrakhan school?), or indeed any
other cultural separatist who could attract a few suckers.
Coons and Sugarman worry--with good reason--that unless voucher regulations are
carefully written, the affluent will use them to supplement private school
tuition while the poor will be stuck with whatever schooling the voucher will
provide. While that could be fixed by limiting vouchers to schools that charge
no more than the voucher is worth (which is what Chubb and Moe and Coons and
Sugarman propose), no plan yet overcomes other problems in an unregulated
market: that racial and ethnic segregation would rise, or that some parents
would not be able to find a school that will take their children. The advocates
of the California voucher argue that since they propose "scholarships"
averaging only about half of what existing public schools spend per pupil,
vouchers, if widely used, could save money. But since no plan that's made it to
the ballot significantly limits how or where vouchers can be used, vouchers will
not only become tuition supplements for private school parents but also an
inducement to those schools to raise their tuition.
Nor is it likely that any radically different voucher plan would go very far.
Any plan that is too restrictive about how and where a voucher can be used would
immediately lose its parochial and fundamentalist school constituency; any plan
that's too costly will look too blatantly like a raid on the treasury. Both the
Colorado and California plans provide roughly $2,500, about half what the public
schools spend. That's enough for a parish elementary school but no more than a
third of the tuition at a good private day school and not remotely enough to
educate a handicapped child or any other child with special needs.
Chubb and Moe would provide "add-ons" for such children, as well as a
whole range of other "special educational needs...arising from economic
deprivation, physical handicaps, language difficulties, emotional problems,"
all of it to be determined and refereed by an oxymoronic "choice office"
in each district. In addition, there would be an array of other
bureaucracies--to inform parents of their options, to place children who aren't
accepted by any school (which, of course, conflicts with their insistence that
all schools be autonomous regarding admissions and expulsions), to organize
transportation, and to monitor compliance with the health, safety, and
credentialing regulations that they seem to favor. That may not restore all of
the old school bureaucracy, but the groups that have put vouchers on the ballot
say they'll tolerate no such restrictions. As a "market," what this
most resembles is our two-tier medical system, with the assigned-risk schools
the corollary of the emergency room at the county hospital.
THE MARKET CANARD
The more the system becomes a "market," the more the child and her
parents become customers rather than citizens. In the existing system, the
public schools have to register every child who lives in the appropriate
attendance area. With an unrestricted voucher plan and deregulated schools,
nobody has to take (or notice) anybody. The voucherites are designing a system
that will allow more people to buy their way out but that will lock the children
from whom they're trying to escape not just into their third-class schools, or
out of schools altogether, but into civic and political invisibility.
Voucher advocates are probably correct when they
suggest that just the possibility of choice will begin to challenge arrogant
school bureaucracies and unions. For example, while per-pupil funding in
California has sharply declined relative to the national average (from fifth
among the states in 1965 to roughly fortieth in 1992), teacher salaries there
have remained among the highest. The give, needless to say, has been in the
quality of the program. Can anyone think of a better formula for driving people
to the exits?
The voucher movement has already created a willingness in the public school
establishment to consider far more flexible arrangements. California's
legislature in fall 1992 authorized the creation of 100 charter schools--all
free from most existing curricular requirements, all liberated from most teacher
contract restrictions and credentialing requirements--that might never have been
approved were it not for the voucher proposal on the 1994 ballot. Meanwhile,
countless districts around the country are trying to decentralize school
control, to create schools within schools, to give parents and teachers more
local control and accountability, and, recognizing that different kids have
different interests and different learning styles, to allow parents and children
more choice among the schools. But vouchers are the ultimate weapon, and if the
threat is ever carried out, it may well be impossible to restore the traditional
common school. One can hear some future politician saying, "What, you want
Many of the reform plans of the past decade, of course, have run afoul of the
same school boards, unions, and bureaucracies. But if the failures justify any
head-on fight, it's a fight to liberate the local schools from the stultifying
power of those organizations, not to launch a frontal attack on the principle of
the common school. In some cases, that fight has been slow, in part because
school boards, downtown bureaucracies, and state credentialing agencies are
reluctant to yield authority; in part because various groups of ideological
snoops and true believers demand an inventory of everything that's said or read
or done inside the schoolhouse (Catcher in the Rye? Witches? Birth
Control? Secular Humanism?); and in part because some state and local teacher
organizations continue to insist that teacher contracts be modeled on those of
industrial unions, with their tight work rules, their resistance to pay
differentials, their rigid seniority system, and their refusal to participate in
peer review or in anything else that could be regarded as management decisions.
In Los Angeles last year, teachers, protesting threatened pay reductions,
refused to appear for back-to-school nights. In other districts, teachers
refused to write recommendations for students applying to college.
But the voices at the top are beginning to send different signals. Albert
Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has long been a
vigorous force for reform (including public school choice) and for the creation
of what he long ago called world-class academic standards. Keith Geiger, who
heads the National Education Association, may be showing similar flexibility.
Just as important, there are signs that teachers are driving their schools, and
often their whole school systems, to greater flexibility and school-site
innovation and accountability. Frank Newman, who heads the Education Commission
of the States, says school boards now seem to be more of a drag on innovation
and flexibility than any of the other major players in American education.
None of that should suggest that all institutional barriers against change are
gone. But neither is there anything that so far justifies the far more radical
attempt to finance a general breakout from (and breakup of) the public system.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the voucher movement is that even as it pretends
to be concerned with individuals, it so thoroughly focuses on abstractions: the
market, competition, the schools as institutions. But if one looks at real
schools or real children, it's clear that the solutions, like the problems, are
far more complicated and qualified. There are no panaceas here. The research is
not even clear on how much difference money, class size, or the school
themselves make. Still, there are a number of emerging conclusions.
The most successful schools are those with a clear sense of mission and shared
values--schools that foster cooperative rather than bureaucratic relationships.
That suggests that more school site control is preferable to more control by
downtown bureaucrats and that more diversity and choice is preferable to a
single model. Choice within the public system therefore makes sense, but as the
Carnegie study points out, probably only as part of a plan of broader reforms;
only if the schools are able to create sufficiently compelling programs; only if
there is enough reliable information and quality control so that the choices can
be made intelligently; and only if there are relevant programs even for marginal
One of the most interesting and celebrated of the public school choice programs
now in operation--East Harlem's--didn't begin with choice at all. It began with
attempts within a few schools to create distinctive and attractive programs--a
performing arts school, among others, a math-science school, a bilingual school,
a "bridge" school for tough-to-teach kids. Once these schools were
established, choice was necessary to allow the children to opt for those
programs. The voucherite faith has it the other way: that once there is a
market, other reforms will automatically follow.
But there is no real reason to believe that. If there is any moral
justification anywhere for limited vouchers, it's in the inner-city. But the
better alternative is to give parents a greater voice and to make the necessary
social investment--in health, in training parents to teach their preschool kids
(the model is an Israeli program that Hillary Clinton brought to Arkansas), and
in school-industry apprenticeship programs. The point is that real reform,
particularly in the cities, requires precisely the kind of broad social concern
that vouchers and an educational free market would allow the country to avoid.
To address that concern, federal education policy in the next couple of years
probably ought not focus on schools at all but on children. Maureen DiMarco,
California secretary of education and social services, has urged that if there
is more money for children, most of it should go not to the schools but to
health (especially prenatal care and nutrition), Head Start, day care,
counseling, housing, and recreation. Though extreme, such a focus reflects a
justified sense that the needs are more urgent in, and that the money can be
spent more effectively on, children's social services and parent training than
on an educational system whose reform depends primarily on the states and local
That's not to say the schools are well funded; many are not. But any additional
money for schools (most of it no doubt state money) should be disbursed only
with a quid pro quo--in curricular changes, school-site control, accountability
for teachers and parents, and, where real options justify it, public school
choice. Without these, little will change. Surely Bill Clinton, who was the
driving force behind the school reforms in Arkansas, understands that as well as
anyone. The essence of school reform during the 1980s, from Arkansas and
Mississippi to New Jersey and California, was its ability to use additional
funding to buy those higher standards for teachers, even a few halting steps
toward merit pay, as well as tougher graduation requirements and other
reforms--trading some flexibility from the unions and the bureaucrats for
greater tax support. The reforms fell short largely in their failure to get
enough reform for their additional tax dollars.
National performance-based testing can help. If done right--if we measure
higher order skills such as problem solving, historical analysis, as well as
writing and other creative work (all of which, of course, is expensive)--it may
do more to generate a realistic appreciation of how the nation's schools are
doing and how every particular school is doing against Shanker's world standard.
It certainly could shake up those very satisfied parents; and it could shake up
school boards, legislatures, and perhaps teachers colleges as well.
In the final analysis, however, the most important thing a Clinton
administration--or any national administration--could do now for schools is to
re-energize general confidence in government, in community, and in the efficacy
of public service. Private school vouchers, after all, are not much more than
the educational version of privatization in a dozen other areas. If the idea is
driven by a desire to escape from the latter day (mostly social) problems of the
schools, it can also be dampened by renewed confidence in government's interest
in, and ability to deal with, those problems. For the most part, schools are
local and state concerns anyway--the federal government funds no more than 6
percent of the total enterprise, less than it did when Reagan came to office in
1980. Though that federal contribution should be raised, what Washington mainly
can do is set the climate. And in the past decade, the climate has been awful.
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