The French and Their Schools

January 23, 1994

Cherchez the French! Hundreds of thousands of them took to the streets of Paris last Sunday in the first major protest against the rightist government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

The beef: not the Balladur government's failure to improve France's lagging economy or its views on European union. No, the 500,000 or so demonstrators (braving cold and rain) shouted for the resignation of Education Minister Francois Bayrou, sponsor of a law to boost public spending on private (mostly church) schools.

"Schools belong to the people, not to the pope!" they shouted. Their show of force was all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the central plank of the law had been declared unconstitutional by the watchdog Constitutional Council three days before the demonstration.

Comparisons are inevitable. We thought of the few dozen Marylanders who can be counted on to show up at a demonstration on either side of the aid-to-private-school issue. And of the very mild national protest over 12 years as the Reagan and Bush administrations tried to circumvent the First Amendment with various "choice" and voucher schemes.

Americans are apathetic about their schools, though they indicate in poll after poll that they care about education and want more education news. When their own children are involved -- such as the case of the controversial "inclusion" program in Baltimore County -- they can be bulldogs. But when a question of national policy comes to the fore, when the principle of church-state separation is on the line, it's hard to get them excited.

The French can show the way. Mr. Balladur agreed immediately after the big protest to hold talks with state school teachers and parents, and he is promising an extra $420 million for public schools over the next five years. In the birthplace of our democracy, big squeaky wheels get the grease.

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