Many a child left behind

The news that the District’s representative in Congress has joined with organized labor and liberals within the Democratic Party to demand an end to Washington’s successful voucher experiment shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

Voucher programs and public charter schools are under attack all over the country by the very people who like to justify more federal programs than I can possibly list here as needed “for the children.” The problem is that in the liberal ideological and political world, the interests of the “children” almost always take a back seat to their belief that every interest must be serviced through government and unionized government workers or not at all.

The liberal mindset sees this insistence on denying children, and particularly minority children, access to any institutions other than traditional public schools as evidence of some ethereal goodness and insists that anyone who seeks to change the educational status quo is an enemy of education itself. It seems not to matter a whit to most of these people that many of the schools they would force children to attend don’t work.

The answer, they tell us, is not competition or innovation, but money. It is their belief that if government at all levels will simply dump enough money into the existing system, all will be well,  though the evidence suggests otherwise. With one of the most expensive per-student expenditures in the country, the problem in the District of Columbia certainly isn’t money, but an educational, administrative and municipal bureaucracy that is bloated and largely incompetent. The best teachers are ground down and forced to become little more than babysitters or to seek more rewarding employment elsewhere as quickly as possible.

That schools in the District and many other areas of the country are broken is no secret, yet most everyone within the existing system continues to spend more energy blaming others for the problem than trying to fix it. When they aren’t blaming the tax system, the taxpayer or Congress, in fact, they tend to blame parents for sending them children who are unruly or ill-prepared. The one thing they know is that it isn’t their fault. The result is that we are turning out class after class of young adults who are finding it harder and harder to compete in a global economy against workers from nations that actually take education seriously.

The rise of the charter and voucher movements, along with the skyrocketing number of parents choosing to home-school their children rather than entrust  them to a system that doesn’t work, represent a rational response to the problem. Union representatives and elected officials like Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) claim that rather than giving up on traditional public schools, these parents should stick with them and help fix them.

 What she is really asking, of course, is for parents to accept the fact of an ugly and unacceptable status quo. The District’s schools have been a disaster for decades and have helped keep the children of District residents from achieving their dreams or the success every parent wishes for his or her children. What Ms. Norton and her cohorts are telling those who have found a better way is that the greater good dictates that they sacrifice the hopes and dreams of their children to the ideological and political demands of those who have failed and continue to fail.

That’s the ugly truth in Washington and elsewhere. Charter schools and private schools are under attack around the country today, not because they don’t work, but because they do. The fact that the victims of these attacks are often those poor and minority kids who most need a good education seems of little concern to folks like Ms. Norton.

Charter schools and vouchers were originally seen by many as a means not only of providing a way out for children trapped in failing schools that weren’t being fixed, but as a way to inject competitive pressure into a monopolistic structure and thus force the traditional public school systems to change and improve. Unfortunately, however, the existing system is responding to competition like most monopolies — by trying to close down its competitors rather than improve what it has to offer.

Barack Obama, like John McCain, claims to be interested in educational innovation and in actually finding solutions to the educational mess in which the country finds itself.

Perhaps he ought to give Ms. Norton a call and tell her it’s about the children, not the bureaucrats.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.