Will real Democrats open door to vouchers?

March 04, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Halfway through last week's episode of NBC's West Wing, I was jerked alert by a scene that, as network promos say, was ripped from the headlines.

It was a scene that illustrated how much easier it is for a fictitious president such as Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, to behave like a statesman than it is for a real one.

The issue was school vouchers. The District of Columbia's Democratic mayor and the president of its school board had broken party ranks to ally with congressional Republicans behind an experimental program to help low-income D.C. pupils attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

Hard to imagine? Not at all. Up to that point, the TV program matched real life. Amid heated controversy, the Republican Congress in January approved a $14 million voucher program to enable hundreds of D.C. schoolchildren to attend private schools at taxpayer expense this coming fall.

The bill, supported by President Bush, also was supported by Mayor Anthony Williams and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the school board. Both are black Democrats but also fiercely independent enough to shrug off the disapproval of national Democrats when they see a chance to get something - anything! - out of Congress to help D.C. pupils.

Now President Bartlet is a Democrat, and like most Washington Democrats, he would rather fall face-down on hot knives than give up his opposition to school vouchers.

But the mayor is resolute. He's ready to accept help for his city's students anywhere he can, even from Republicans.

So President Bartlet plays what he thinks will be an ace in the hole. He invites his college-age personal aide, Charlie Young, played by Dule Hill, into the room and asks what high school he went to. Mr. Young responds, "Roosevelt," a D.C. public high school. Mr. Bartlet smirks, satisfied that such a fine young man came out of a public school.

The mayor, unmoved, asks Mr. Young what high school he would have gone to if he'd had his wishes. He responds, "Gonzaga," naming a well-respected Catholic high school. Why? "Never a shooting," he says. "No metal detectors. Everybody there goes to college."

Asked what he thinks of the proposed voucher program, Mr. Young says, "I wish they had one when I was in school."

Mr. Bartlet looks into Mr. Young's eyes, then he turns to the mayor. "Your honor," he says, "I'm going to need your help putting out some fires within the party on this one." The mayor is delighted. The president has changed his mind and is willing to spend serious political capital for vouchers.

The vignette made me wonder: Will we ever see a real-life Democratic president willing to go up against his party's base, particularly the teachers union, to show the sort of statesmanlike independence that Mr. Bartlet did?

I called Lawrence O'Donnell, a West Wing consulting producer and former aide to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. It turned out that he scripted the voucher episode. He was inspired by his Washington experiences. He was in the room, for example, when President Bill Clinton put out fires with the unions and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt over the North American Free Trade Agreement bill.

But Mr. O'Donnell told me he also was inspired by his experiences as a substitute school teacher in the Boston area.

Experience in really run-down schools, where even the teachers had lost hope, changed Mr. O'Donnell's mind about vouchers.

"I saw kids academically dying before my eyes," he said. "I found it too painful to actually look in their eyes and say, `No, even if there is a better school around the corner, there are policy reasons why I cannot tell you to go there. Or help you to go there.'"

Polls show most black Americans, statistically the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency, support vouchers as D.C.'s mayor and school board president do.

For example, 57 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans supported vouchers, compared with 52 percent of whites, in a 2002 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank on black-oriented issues.

"Black parents are more likely to be seeking a change for the better for their kids," said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the center. "A larger percentage of white parents are satisfied with their schools."

That's why it is fun to imagine party leaders who, on an issue such as this one, are willing to open the door, at least wide enough for some experimentation. When old ideas have played out, it makes sense to try some new ones, even if they come from your political opponents.

Otherwise, as John F. Kennedy once said, sometimes party loyalty asks too much.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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