Score One for School Vouchers

The public-private school voucher program is getting straight A's this term. Communities around the nation interested in school choice received a flashing green light when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a Milwaukee case, thereby finessing the acrimonious church-state issue, at least for now. New evidence, particularly from New York City, is showing that vouchers work well. And, as important as anything else, the politics of the issue are tilting steadily toward the proponents, much to the dismay of schizophrenic Democrats.

No one senses the political situation better than John Norquist, the hard-driving mayor of Milwaukee. The city is Ground Zero of the voucher movement, starting with 1,500 publicly-funded private school scholarships made available for low-income inner-city children in 1991. Milwaukee now has about 7,000 students on vouchers, with more than 10,000 expected next year, and 15,000 slots authorized.

Mr. Norquist, who has a sense of humor, thinks elementary and high school vouchers are a valid and valuable program, just as the G.I. Bill is for college education: "Under the G.I. bill right now . . . you could go to any public, private or parochial school you want. You could go to Yeshiva University and become a rabbi. You could go to a theological seminary and become a Catholic priest. Or you could go to the University of Wisconsin and become a communist."

Several points about the outspoken Mr. Norquist are of political relevance: (1) although vouchers have become a talisman for Republicans, he is a Democrat; (2) he'd like to be governor of Wisconsin one day; and (3) he has received 65 percent and 60 percent of the vote in a heavily Democratic city in his last two runs for mayor.

Mr. Norquist believes that other Democrats ought to get with the program, even though usually friendly teachers unions and the liberal People for the American Way vigorously oppose the idea. He gets particularly vehement with one argument coming from anti-voucher forces, who claim vouchers will "cream" the best students to private schools, leaving the inner-city public schools in worse shape than they are now. Mr. Norquist replies: "The creaming has already occurred under the public school choice system that we've had in America for the last 35 to 40 years. . . . If you have money and kids and you're white, you leave town. And that's school choice that you never hear the defenders of the public school monopoly bring up. Creaming? Anyone care about creaming? No. Because they're still in a government-run school."

The New York City results show solid success in a voucher experiment that involved 1,300 lower-income students, principally minorities, in the fourth and fifth grade, chosen by lottery. Harvard's Paul Peterson is co-author of the recently published "An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year." He reports that students in the program gained 4 percentile points in reading, and 6 percentile points in math, compared to a control group of students who had applied, but did not win a spot in the program.

Moreover, the schools have smaller class sizes, are more integrated, with less disruption, less fighting, less cheating, less tardiness and less racial conflict. There is more communication with parents. Students do more homework. Mr. Peterson, like Mr. Norquist, is a Democrat.

National public opinion polls show school voucher programs have become more popular over the years and are actually more popular with Democrats than Republicans. About half the population is now in favor, up from a about a quarter just five years ago. Moreover, a solid and growing majority of blacks favor the idea. This is a potential splitting wedge to the heart of the classic Democratic coalition. As it stands now, it is nearly impossible to please both unions and People for the American Way, who oppose vouchers, and loyal African-American voters, who support it. It yields the bizarre situation of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson campaigning against giving vouchers for private schools to a few black kids in D.C. - while their own children received their education in just such private venues.

Mr. Norquist thinks vouchers need not be the horns of a Democratic dilemma. He believes in competition. He thinks good teachers will get better pay when a variety of schools compete to be best. He wants all the educational flowers to bloom: private, parochial, charter and public - particularly public. He predicts that "within five years Milwaukee will have the best public school system of any large city in America. That's because our public schools are going to respond to this power of the consumer that the parents now have to choose quality. When the schools know the parents are going choose quality, they're going to deliver quality."

That covers all the bases, which gets Mr. Norquist an A in political science.

Ben Wattenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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