Education expert vouches for school choice

October 01, 2003|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,SUN STAFF

FOR THE past week, the U.S. Senate has been debating whether to extend to poor parents the same choices that rich people have for their children's education.

Let's not mince words about it. That's exactly what's going on in Washington. During the summer, the House of Representatives approved a $40 million spending bill for the District of Columbia. Part of the package included about $10 million to provide "opportunity scholarships" of up to $7,500 for 1,300 poor D.C. public school students attending so-called learning institutions where anything but learning is going on. Now the Senate gets to debate its own voucher legislation.

The plan would allow parents of those students the choice of sending their kids to a private school. Opponents of school vouchers have screamed bloody murder and argued that the proposal will siphon dollars from public schools. But Casey Lartigue doesn't see it that way.

Lartigue is the education policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. Lartigue, an African-American, described himself as a one-time liberal who believed in all the liberal things, like affirmative action and such. It took only one debate with libertarians about affirmative action during Lartigue's college days at Harvard to get him to question his views.

"Originally, I didn't like them," Lartigue said of vouchers. "Initially, I agreed with a lot of the analysis about them being bad for public schools. I changed my mind when I considered `Hey, [vouchers] just might work.'"

There are still those who sincerely believe, as Lartigue once did, that vouchers will be bad for public schools. Two of them are Maryland's senators, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski. Both issued statements regarding vouchers. Here's what they said.

Mikulski: "Private school vouchers drain desperately needed funding from already struggling public schools. The $13 million included in this legislation for vouchers is not a good use of scarce federal funds. I voted against the Education bill earlier this year because there wasn't enough money for our schools, including teacher training and special education. Now Congress is taking away more money for private school vouchers. Public funds should be spent on public schools, not on private vouchers for a few lucky students."

Sarbanes (from his press secretary, Jesse Jacobs): "Senator Sarbanes is committed to the pluralist system of education that we are fortunate to have in this country, but does not support diverting scarce Federal funds away from the public education system. In the Senator's view, the issue is not the value of private schools to our communities, but how best to use scarce Federal resources to rejuvenate public education."

Why, bless their liberal little hearts! They still think -- despite the evidence of some of Baltimore's worst middle and high schools, where lack of discipline, not lack of dollars, impedes learning -- that the solution for public education is more money. (D.C. spends more per student than every state but has the second-worst school system in the country.)

For Lartigue, the issue is one of choice. You'd think liberals would be able to understand choice -- they give it knee-jerk support when the issue is terminating a fetus -- but they pretend not to know what it is when the issue is education.

"I see education as a service," Lartigue said. "Give people information and let them choose."

Lartigue is not swayed one iota by the excuses bureaucrats and politicians give for poor public schools: lack of money, crowded classrooms, etc. Just 11 days ago, he stood within mere blocks of Frederick Douglass' historic home in the Anacostia section of the nation's capital, talking about the self-educated 19th-century orator, abolitionist, diplomat and newspaper editor.

"At one time Douglass taught a class of 40 slaves to read in a barn," Lartigue noted, "when it was illegal."

In other words, according to Lartigue, Douglass and those slaves didn't make any excuses then, so it behooves all of us -- with far more resources and freedom -- not to make excuses now.

We in Baltimore -- where Douglass lived and taught himself to read -- would do very well to heed that observation.

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