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Vouchers just go so far, and for so few

Sometime smart people can say things that sound as if they think the rest of us are pretty stupid.

Take, for example, the proposals that promise to help public school students pay for private schools. The cause, though decently directed, has been vastly oversold.

Rep. Floyd H. Flake, D-N.Y., offers an excellent example of oversalesmanship in his recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. He was pushing a bill the House passed last week to give parents more choices in where they send their children to school.

It "would allow parents to put as much as $2,500 a year, per child into savings accounts," he wrote. The funds then could be withdrawn with no tax on the interest earned, for education-related expenses, including tutoring, home computers, SAT preparation, transportation costs, school supplies and _ here's where it really gets interesting _ tuition to private schools, including religious private schools.

Let's think about this. Are parents who have $2,500 a year per child to put away for their children's education the sort of desperately poor folks who need education help the most? And is the tax break big enough to be attractive to parents of more modest means?

As Education Secretary Richard Riley, who opposes the bill, argues, a family with a $25,000 income that saves $200 a year at 8 percent interest would earn only $16 and a tax cut of _ brace yourself _ $2.50.

Gee, I wonder how many parents are being held back from putting their kid in private school for lack of a $2.50 incentive?

Parents already have the right to spend their own money on the private school of their choice. The thorny issue here is their right to spend OUR MONEY, taxpayers' money, on the private school of their choice.

Many of us taxpayers still tend to cling to the perhaps-no-longer-fashionable notion that government is obliged to offer a quality education to everyone, not just the lucky ones who can get into private schools.

Some highly commendable private programs have emerged in about 30 cities in recent years to help low-income children swing the tuition to a private or parochial school. The programs deserve praise.

But public money is the question driving the debate over several new school-choice proposals in Congress. The proposed bill for A-plus Education Savings Accounts, or "educational IRAs," as they more often are called, is co-sponsored in the Senate by Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and was introduced in the House by Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Another bill would permit the states to shift federal education grant money into Helping Empower Low-Income Parents "scholarships" that could be used in private schools in 100 low-income "renewal communities." That bill is co-sponsored by Flake, with Rep. James Talent, R-Mo., Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., and Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, Congress' sole black Republican.

Congress also has a proposal in this year's appropriations package to give publicly funded vouchers to 2,000 District of Columbia schoolchildren for use in private schools or in the suburbs.

Great. That would leave only 76,000 other kids to be taught.

Clinton, supported heavily by teachers' unions that oppose any hint of a diversion of public funds away from public schools, is expected to veto all these proposals. Republicans, eager to show something that resembles compassion for the poor, will then castigate Clinton for taking a private school education out of the grasp of poor children.

That's politics. At least it is refreshing to hear conservatives acknowledge that we have serious disparities in opportunities in this country. Too bad they're so reluctant to do much about it, as long as the issue can be used to bash unions, liberals and Clinton.

That's why the support of liberal urban blacks such as Flake, an ordained minister in Queens, whose church operates a private school for 490 mostly black children, shows a significant swing in the voucher debate. Until blacks like Flake and Watts showed up, it was mostly an argument between white elites over how to treat poor blacks.

Yet, even Flake and Watts quickly admit that IRAs and vouchers are only modest reforms. At best, when used in tandem with other more sweeping efforts, they might help America turn the corner on bad schools.

Maybe. So far, the mere threat of vouchers has revved up the pressure on local school leaders to initiate sweeping reforms. Some already are showing results as impressive as any to be found in private schools _ even in New York, Flake admits.

The challenge is for the rest of our public schools to get their houses in order.


Before Congress burns their houses down.

Chicago Tribune