Today's principle civil rights fight
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:
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.
Your viewWhat's your view on vouchers• Tell us at: email@example.com .
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.