The Education Candidate?
By Arianna Huffington
July 22, 1996
Got an issue that could help Bob Dole stand apart from Bill Clinton? He could use one now that many of the GOP prize issues -- a balanced budget and welfare reform among them -- have been poached by our wildly triangulating president.
But even Clinton knows there is one circle he cannot attempt to square, one special interest he cannot afford to cross: the teachers' unions. They stubbornly and consistently resist educational reform even as voter confidence in public schools continues, with good reason, to tumble.
In a tragic twist, over 40 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, public schools have never been less equal or more segregated. Among 1,000 black residents polled in Milwaukee, 71 percent were in favor of vouchers that would enable low-income parents to pull their children out of the morass of public schools where they are not safe and where they cannot learn.
Last week, Dole chose Milwaukee to unveil his G.I. Bill for Schoolchildren, a $2.5 billion federal program to provide "opportunity scholarships" to low- and middle-income students for use at public, private or religious schools. "We can't tinker around the edges," Dole said. "School uniforms, maybe that helps. ... Curfews, maybe that helps. But nothing will help until we fundamentally change the system and we give the parents of the United States a choice."
How nice it is to hear a Republican talking the language of the good old days -- 1994, that is -- when the GOP promised a revolution to sweep away the ossified Great Society propped up by powerful special interests and a dearth of clearly articulated, positive alternatives.
There are few areas in which radical reform is more urgently needed than in education, despite the $250 billion spent each year on elementary and secondary public schools.
Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, described as "devastating" the fact that 57 percent of parents surveyed would choose a private school for their children if they could afford it. The parents who can, like the president and vice president of the United States, have already voted on the sorry state of public education by taking their children out of it.
But the teachers' unions, and the politicians beholden to them, are standing in the school doors telling poor children they cannot get out -- the way George Wallace stood in the courthouse door telling black children they could not get in.
A radical commitment to educational reform could ignite the public imagination and recapture for Republicans the moral high ground by putting them solidly on the side of the disenfranchised. School vouchers for the poor is not some bloodless idea manufactured in a conservative think tank. Clinton will be forced to justify his readiness to sacrifice the children of the poor to pay off the educrats backing his campaign.
But for this to succeed, Dole must take the battle to his opponent every day from now till November. And he will have to find the ringing voice of the true believer.
One such true believer was with Dole in Milwaukee last week. Michael Joyce heads the Bradley Foundation, which grants over $500,000 annually to PAVE, a Milwaukee group of business and civic leaders that provides children with access to good schools. "Let's start," he has said, "by giving the parents of our low-income children the option to exit a system that, like all monopolies, is deaf to their cries and unresponsive to their needs."
A grateful father once knelt and kissed Joyce's hand for making it possible for his child to escape a terrible public school. This story, more than any other, brought home to me the pain of being a parent who is powerless because of poverty to give his child the gift of a decent education.
At Messmer High School, which participates in the PAVE program, I met Brother Bob Smith, its principal and one of the heroes in the struggle for parental choice. "This is the next civil-rights movement," he told me.
Perhaps some of Joyce and Smith's crusading spirit will rub off on Dole and take him beyond merely committing government resources to the voucher plan to challenging corporate America to supplement the scholarships for children whose families cannot make up the difference.
There is plenty of reason for skepticism. After all, in the summer of 1992, in a White House ceremony, President Bush endorsed a similar G.I. bill for kids -- then, as now, with Lamar Alexander at his side. It was like a head cold: It took seven days to work through the president's system before it was cast aside for the next issue du jour.We shall soon see if Dole is more committed to the lives of millions of children trapped in a broken system than the last Republican who ran against Bill Clinton.
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