School choice gets needed boost from Supreme Court

November 29, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In its potential for social amelioration, the largest domestic event this autumn was nothing done by voters or elected officials. It was the Supreme Court's refusal to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court's ruling that Milwaukee's school-choice program is constitutional. By such steps, liberals are losing their protracted war against poor children.

It takes a village of vigilant liberals to keep poor children chained on the plantation of public education. Poor parents are rebellious about their children's assigned role as fodder for one of the Democratic Party's most muscular sources of money, the teachers unions.

Milwaukee provides vouchers worth up to $5,000 for 15,000 of the poorest among the city's 100,000 students, who may use them at 122 private schools, 89 of which are religious. Wisconsin's court, in a rare intrusion of common sense about the establishment clause, said Milwaukee's program does not constitute "establishment" of religion. Vouchers are doubly neutral: They go not to institutions but to parents, who can use them at secular or parochial schools.

Splitting hairs

Splitting already split hairs, courts have held that public money can transport parochial school pupils to classes but not on field trips, can pay for nurses but not guidance counselors at parochial schools, can pay for books but not maps in religious schools. So, mused Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, what of atlases -- books of maps?

Silence from the Supreme Court is welcome, and is an encouraging harbinger concerning school-choice programs. However, silence will not suffice because the court's refusal to hear the challenge to Wisconsin's ruling is not controlling in the rest of the country. So inner-city parents nationwide will continue to rattle their chains.

Their allies include some state and local politicians, often liberals who have slipped the leash of orthodoxy, and tenacious litigators from Washington's Institute for Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. To understand why tenacity is necessary, consider the ferocity of the Democratic Party's anti-school-choice fervor.

There are many more picturesque political sins than President Clinton's veto of a modest school-choice program last May. However, few political sins are as purely, as simply contemptible as his killing of that bill, which would have enabled 2,000 children -- a tiny portion of Washington's public school students -- to escape those life-blighting schools.

The veto was so casual and predictable that it occasioned little comment. There is indeed nothing newsworthy about the powerful defending the strong against the weak. Still, note that Mr. Clinton vetoed the bill after a Democratic filibuster failed to stop it. Democrats felt that strongly about caulking up even this sliver of daylight, toward which Washington parents would have stampeded.

The Becket Fund's ecumenical agitators, acting in the spirit of the turbulent priest whose name the fund bears, are attacking, as denials of equal protection, "Blaine laws" in Massachusetts and 36 other states that retain these repellent residues of 19th-century nativism.

In 1855, Massachusetts Protestants capped their anti-immigrant (meaning anti-Catholic) rioting in and around Boston by amending the state constitution to bar citizens from seeking, through normal democratic processes of legislation, public assistance in meeting expenses of nonpublic, including parochial, schools. At the time, every member of the Massachusetts Senate and all but four members of the House were members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, as was the governor.

The legislature established a Nunnery Investigating Committee to look for underground dungeons at convents, and came close to banning immigrants from voting until they had lived there 21 years.

Maine's Rep. James G. Blaine, Republican leader during the Grant administration, unsuccessfully tried in 1875 to pass a federal law like Massachusetts', but states adopted their own "Blaine laws."

JTC Popular movement

Today's Democratic Party, comparably benighted about educational freedom, opposes school-choice groups that constitute one of today's most broad-based popular movements. Liberals, when not fighting Microsoft, are defending a failing semi-monopoly -- an education establishment desperately wielding government power to protect it from competition.

Conservatism still suffers, electorally and in history's assessment, because of its tardy and often grudging support for the 1960s civil rights bills guaranteeing access to public accommodations and voting booths. Today, liberalism is tainting itself.

Liberalism now has its own George Wallaces standing in schoolhouse doors, blocking poor children from the means of making choices of a sort taken for granted by nonpoor Americans (including liberalism's Wallaces). Soon such liberals will seem as reactionary, bullying and destined for history's ashcan as those who resisted desegregation. There is little to be said for today's Republican Party, but at least it is pro-school choice.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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