As the New York Times reports this morning, the issue of school vouchers has become a lost opportunity for the Bush administration to make solid inroads into the African-American electorate on the basis of policy. School vouchers formed the core of the original education-reform efforts of the White House until a compromise with Ted Kennedy scotched them from the No Child Left Behind program and revamp of the Department of Education. Instead, federal funding for other educational efforts rocketed up by 58% while still leaving inner-city children in failing schools.
Now we can see what we traded away:
Amie is one of about 1,700 low-income, mostly minority students in Washington who at taxpayer expense are attending 58 private and parochial schools through the nation’s first federal voucher program, now in its second year.
Last year, parents appeared lukewarm toward the program, which was put in place by Congressional Republicans as a five-year pilot program, But this year, it is attracting more participation, illustrating how school-choice programs are winning over minority parents, traditionally a Democratic constituency.
Washington’s African-American mayor, Anthony A. Williams, joined Republicans in supporting the program, prompted in part by a concession from Congress that pumped more money into public and charter schools. In doing so, Mr. Williams ignored the ire of fellow Democrats, labor unions and advocates of public schools.
“As mayor, if I can’t get the city together, people move out,” said Mr. Williams, who attended Catholic schools as a child. “If I can’t get the schools together, why should there be a barrier programmatically to people exercising their choice and moving their children out?”
Why indeed? Why do we continue to insist on the state-monopoly model as the only investment path for our educational funding? The GOP had an opportunity in 2001, and a better one in 2003 with complete control over Congress, to push for school vouchers in order to empower parents with real choices for their children. That more than any other government program holds the key to unlocking people from the cycle of poverty — a good education. Instead, we continued to throw money at the same institutions that have failed these children for generations and avoided the competition that could have improved all of the schools, not just the private and parochial schools in these areas. Even a school board will eventually see reason when their best and brightest leave for rapidly-expanded jobs in a new educational market that values and rewards excellence and competence, instead of forcing them to endure the mediocrity and union-imposed seniority systems that have transformed schools into civil-service bureaucracies.
The GOP still has a window of opportunity to create meaningful educational reform through competition. When the New York Times reports on how successful such a program has been for disadvantaged children, it indicates that the old politics of education no longer apply. The Republicans can get ahead of the curve if they act quickly and decisively before the 2006 elections, after which their control of Congress may be in doubt. However, they can establish themselves as the champions of true economic freedom and anti-poverty reformers by creating many more opportunities for these parents to ensure the success fo their children.
These parents will vote for hope, not for yet another outlay of billions into a system they know from painful experience has failed them, their children, and their grandchildren. If the GOP wants to get serious about winning a bigger share of the urban vote, they need to act now to do so. So far, campaigning as Democrats on education has won them nothing.