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Dole's talk of vouchers touches a nerve

With his proposal last week for federally funded school vouchers to expand parental choice in education, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has put a significant issue into play in a campaign that has been lamentably shy of serious content. But the idea, as he described it, skirts as many problems as it purports to solve.

When Mario Brossard, a Washington Post colleague, described the Dole idea to a group of young marrieds outside Dayton, Ohio, last week, their previous indifference to Dole vanished and they jumped into a lively debate. Clearly, Dole has found something that touches a nerve.

Americans of all ages have been expressing strong concern about our schools _ and for good reason. Everything we know about the changing economy shouts that education will be even more critical to personal fulfillment in the next century than in the past.

President Clinton, an early leader in the education reform movement in Arkansas and the nation, properly has kept education as a priority item in his budget battles with Congress. Polls show he is strongly favored over Dole when it comes to that issue.

But the failures that are far too common, especially in urban school systems, have created widespread doubts about public schools. And Dole has latched onto one possible remedy in suggesting that vouchers might improve the situation by offering families an alternative. As Joseph P. Viteritti of New York University writes in the summer issue of the Brookings Review, the words "separate and unequal" still apply to too many schools, with de facto segregation the norm and both facilities and test results worse for minority children. Several states have launched experiments with school vouchers for needy families, and the Supreme Court has opened the door to use of such vouchers in private and parochial schools.

Dole's "Opportunity Scholarships for Children" proposal would provide annual stipends of $1,000 per child in elementary grades and $1,500 per child in high school, with the cost split between federal and state governments. To limit the budget impact, he would start it as a pilot program in the District of Columbia and 14 states.

"Some families already have school choice," he said in the Milwaukee speech introducing the plan. "They have it because they happen to be wealthy. I'm glad they have that choice. It's the right thing for their children. And if it's right for them, it's right for low-income and middle-income families too."

That's good, populist-sounding rhetoric. And it places Clinton and Vice President Al Gore _ who have sent their children to private schools in Washington _ on the defensive. Democrats get massive financial and political support from the teachers' unions, which are opposed to any scheme that sends public funds to private and parochial schools.

Dole's plan, however, raises some large problems.

First, it could put a double whammy on the states. He proposes to pay for the federal share by cutting existing education spending, most of which is funneled to the states. And, while participation is voluntary, the requirement that states pay half the cost of the scholarships is a classic unfunded mandate, something Dole says he is against.

Second, the scholarships in question are too small to pay tuition at most private or parochial schools. Many poor families would still find the school doors closed.

Third, Dole evades the question of who would qualify for grants by leaving the eligibility test to each state. His thinking appears muddled. He says his proposal is based on Pell grants for college costs, which are means-tested, and on the GI Bill, which was a universal entitlement.

Finally, he does not even discuss the question of geographical boundaries, a vital issue. In Ohio, whose program he cited as an example, Republican Gov. George Voinovich was stymied in his quest for a voucher program for Cleveland schools until he agreed to the Legislature's insistence that no Cleveland student could use the money to transfer to a suburban school district. The blunt reality is that many advocates of "choice" don't want poor, minority children coming into their affluent, white schools.

As it stands, the Dole plan could end up as a subsidy to middle-class parents who want out of the public schools, while leaving most of the poor and minority kids trapped in failing schools with even fewer funds.

But Democrats who refuse to budge on this issue should take no comfort. A showdown is surely coming between the demands of the teachers' unions and the needs of the youngsters those Democrats claim to cherish.

Washington Post Writers Group