March 1, 2006 | Commentary on Education
The Clintons have a history of opposing school-choice
initiatives, but Sen. Hillary Clinton's recent attack on school
vouchers ratcheted up already overheated rhetoric and at least
temporarily halted her makeover as a moderate.
In 1998, in a classic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do maneuver, President Clinton vetoed legislation to provide school vouchers to low-income families in Washington, D.C., even as he pulled his own daughter from the city's troubled public-school system. The Clintons enrolled Chelsea in the elite Sidwell Friends school, but justified withholding school choice from other D.C. residents by claiming it would jeopardize the health of the entire public school system.
Sen. Clinton recently offered an even more specious justification for denying school choice to children trapped in failing public schools. In a speech in the South Bronx, Sen. Clinton argued that giving parents scholarships to send their children to any school of their choice would lead to children attending "the school of the White Supremacist." The former First Lady continued: "So what if the next parent comes and says, I want to send my child to the School of Jihad? I won't stand for it."
Parents everywhere - and Sen. Clinton's audience in the Bronx - should be offended by these remarks. Families who crave school vouchers for their children aren't hoping to enroll their children in white -supremacist schools madrassas. All they want is the opportunity to send their children to a school where they will learn.
Under a voucher program, policymakers could require that participating children attend private schools that are accredited by the state, in order to protect against the possibility of extremist schools. Sen. Clinton ignores how similar protections have been built into other government programs - such as Pell Grants, the Hope tax credit, and subsidized loan programs - that help students attend a chosen school.
School-voucher programs now exist in eleven states and Washington, D.C. These programs have increased parents' satisfaction with their children's schools, improved students' performance on standardized tests, and encouraged public schools threatened with competition to improve their services.
The mounting evidence that school choice is working has led members of Sen. Clinton's own party to reconsider their long opposition to vouchers. Case in point: the new D.C. voucher program - nearly the same plan that President Clinton vetoed in 1998 - became law in 2004 thanks to support from prominent Democrats such as Mayor Tony Williams and Sens. Robert Byrd, Dianne Feinstein, and Joe Lieberman. As a result 1,700 low-income children in the District use vouchers to attend private school.
More Democrats across the nation are backing school choice. A group of Democratic New Jersey state legislators are backing a school voucher bill for children in the poorest school districts in the Garden State. In Sen. Clinton's New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has offered tentative support to Gov. George Pataki's new plan to offer a $500 tax credit to families for private-school tuition, tutoring, or summer-school costs.
Soon Congressional opponents of school choice will have another opportunity to reconsider vouchers. President Bush recently proposed a new $100 million school-voucher initiative for low-income children trapped in persistently failing public schools. To be eligible for vouchers, children must be enrolled in a school that has failed state testing benchmarks for six or more years.
One public school that would qualify for vouchers under the president's plan is John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. There, fewer than half the students passed a recent state reading exam. If the children attending Kennedy High used vouchers to transfer into private schools, would they be leaving for any reason other than having a decent opportunity to succeed in life - an opportunity their current public school can't give them?
That's a tough question for New York's junior senator.
Dan Lips is a policy analyst who specializes in education issues at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
First appeared in National Review Online