Reactionary Liberalism

TRB

October 28, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington.--School choice is an interesting idea. If I were living in California, I might well vote for Proposition 174, a choice initiative on the ballot there. What galls me, though, is the incredible self-righteousness of choice advocates -- their insistence that choice is the only and obvious solution to what ails the nation's schools.

Choice advocates brandish like a trump card the fact that many choice opponents send their own children to private schools. Chelsea Clinton, for example. (President Clinton favors a limited version of choice, among public schools only.) Nationwide, about 40 percent of urban public-school teachers send their kids to private schools. This is held to demonstrate the hypocrisy of choice opponents, who would deny others an option they themselves exercise.

We should all try harder than we do, no doubt, to live by our ideals. Of course, if it were terminally hypocritical to oppose government financing to allow everyone every ''choice'' you yourself make, school-choice advocates -- who tend to be politically conservative -- would fail that test more often than school-choice opponents. People who ''choose'' to eat in restaurants, go skiing in the winter, etc., do not necessarily favor government programs to provide poor folks the same ''choice.''

To be sure, schooling is different. It is something even conservatives generally agree that society has an obligation to provide, one way or another. What society owes every citizen, however, is quality, not choice. Advocates of school choice must make their case pragmatically -- as the best way to provide universal schooling -- not as a matter of abstract principle. Perhaps they can do it. But they haven't done it yet.

Liberal opposition even to trying school choice smacks of what Kevin Phillips once famously called ''reactionary liberalism'': a defense of the governmental status-quo. What ought to be important to liberals as a matter of principle is what the state guarantees to all its citizens, be it quality education or health care or decent housing. The method of fulfilling that guarantee is merely a technical issue. If ''vouchers'' or other market mechanisms are more efficient than direct government provision of services, it is insane for liberals to oppose them.

It's true that if school choice spreads, the public schools will no longer perform the democratic function of a place where children of different races, ethnic groups and economic backgrounds learn to mix as equals. Unfortunately, they already don't perform that function. The public elementary school I attended was half white and half black. Now it's all black. Indeed, some of the opposition to California's Prop 174 is coming from affluent suburbanites who like their culturally isolated public school systems, and who fear that choice will erode that comfortable isolation.

Conservatives are in for other surprises if school choice becomes the norm. Some are already warning of the government mandates that come with government money. If private and religious schools accept students paid for with public funds, will they not also have to accept public oversight on matters ranging from school prayer to access for the disabled to the dreaded ''diversity''?

Conservatives might well have the opposite worry, too. Especially in California, there is no end of groups that might like to start a government-financed school of their own. How will conservatives like to see their tax dollars going for nudist schools or black nationalist schools or devil-worshiping schools? They may long for the day when the only government subsidy they could find to take offense at was the occasional crucifix in a jar of urine.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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