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Today's principle civil rights fight

| Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003

WASHINGTON - Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, no longer attends the annual picnic held here by District of Columbia supporters of school choice. During the picnic there are lottery drawings to award scholarships empowering a few children to escape from the nation's worst -- and, in per-pupil spending, third-most lavishly funded -- school system. Boehner stopped attending because he could not bear the desperate anxiety, and crushing disappointment, of parents whose hopes for their children hung on the lottery. "I'd stand there and cry the whole time," he says.

Bill Clinton, who could cry out of one eye, was dry-eyed about the plight of D.C.'s poor: he vetoed a school-choice bill for them in 1998. He felt the pain of the strong, the teachers unions who were feeling menaced by the weak -- by poor parents trying to emancipate their children from the public education plantation.

Boehner, who understands the patience of politics, began championing school choice as a state legislator two decades ago. Last Tuesday the House passed a small ($10 million) experimental school choice voucher program for at least 1,300 of D.C.'s 68,000 students. This bill, skillfully managed by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., passed, 209-208, only because two Democrat members, presidential candidates Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich, were in Baltimore at a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, proclaiming their compassion for poor people.

"I have 11 brothers and sisters -- my father owned a bar," says Boehner, who is not suggesting effect and cause, but rather that "growing up in a large family and around a bar was great training for what I do every day" -- an intriguing commentary on the House. Boehner understands the privations parents often must endure to give their children educational opportunities.

He knows that D.C. parents are motivated by research showing that the longer a child attends D.C.'s schools, the worse are the child's life-chances. Also, the D.C. teachers union, a tentacle of the national unions fighting to prevent what they disapprovingly call the "flight" of parents to better schools, has been looted of millions of dollars, much of it allegedly spent by some union officials on personal purchases of luxury goods.

For years, opponents of school choice for poor children have leapt from one sinking argument to another. All their arguments have now sunk:

  • Choice programs that empower parents to choose religious schools are unconstitutional• Seven consecutive Supreme Court decisions say otherwise.

  • Choice programs take money from public schools• The D.C. program takes not a penny -- the $10 million would be new money.

  • Choice programs skim the best students from the public system• Davis' bill gives priority to students in D.C.'s 15 worst-performing schools.

  • Choice programs lack accountability• The academic progress of participants in the program will be measured against the progress of the students who sought but failed to get any of the 1,300 scholarships.

    Given all this, why did the D.C. program barely pass• With states' budgets forcing painful cuts, it can be difficult to vote money for D.C. children. Even more important is the fact that the teachers unions are especially effective at the state level, where they establish relationships with legislators -- and 233 current representatives and 42 senators are former state legislators.

    In the Senate committee vote on D.C. school choice, two Democrats, West Virginia's Robert Byrd and California's Dianne Feinstein, supported the program. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who abstained, explained to some disappointed D.C. parents that the maximum grant under the proposed D.C. program -- $7,500 -- would not be enough to send a poor child to the $21,000-a-year private school her children attend.

    Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, recently selected by National Review as "the worst Republican senator," showed why by opposing the D.C. program. His challenger in Pennsylvania's Republican primary, Rep. Pat Toomey, says he "definitely" expects conservatives around the country to increase their support for him because of Specter's obedience to the teachers unions that are already campaigning for him.

    School choice for poor children is, Boehner says, today's principal civil rights fight. The lottery of life, not choice, determines a child's parents and family situation. There should be choice about schools for children placed by life's lottery in difficult conditions. Otherwise, Boehner says, "It's like saying you can only buy bread in the grocery store closest to your house -- and the government will run the grocery store."

    It is a pity that "pro-choice" Democrats do not remain pro-choice when poor children make it past birth and reach school age.

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