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The truth about school vouchers

This column could be titled: "Anatomy of a Lie" or "How Republicans Feigned Concern for Disadvantaged Minorities as a Ploy to Underwrite Private School Education, A Florida Model."

There's nothing new about the Republican Party's general disdain for public schools and its support for school vouchers. Reimbursing parents for sending their children to private school has topped the party's to-do list for about as long as it has been pushing to absolve rich people of taxes.

In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Republican Party platform not only sought the elimination of the federal Department of Education but supported tax credits to defray tuition costs for parents who sent their children to private or parochial school. In those years, with the rise in the Religious Right, Republicans couched their pro-voucher arguments in terms of the rights of parents to control the "cultural and moral values" of their children.

Today, the goal is the same but the rhetoric has changed. Rather than appeal for the need to give parents the ability to remove children from the "moral relativism" of public schools _ a plea that turned out to have limited selling power _ the party now sports an epiphanic interest in the educational prospects of black kids. In their most recent party platform, Republicans promote choice in education by saying they seek to "empower needy families to escape persistently failing schools by allowing federal dollars to follow their children to the school of their choice."

Yeah, right. The strategy is so transparent it shouldn't have passed the straight-face test. But when, in the early 1990s, leaders in the African-American community joined the refrain, the tactic gained purchase. Wisconsin state legislator Annette Polly Williams, who is both black and a Democrat, authored the first low-income voucher legislation, adopted in 1990. With glee, former U.S. education secretary William Bennett pronounced her the "Rosa Parks of school choice."

Republican leaders claim they aren't promoting vouchers for themselves or their privileged constituents. No, no. All they want is for "opportunity scholarships," as vouchers have been dubbed in Florida, to provide educational options to poor parents.

As Gov. Jeb Bush, who pushed through the first statewide "failing schools" voucher program in the nation, defensively told a New York City audience: "Schools that are failing are 99 percent African-American, and 95 percent of their students qualify for the free school lunch program. This is not some kind of elitist plot, I assure you."

The tactic is too clever by half. Republicans get to sit back and snigger as the issue divides the black community and puts Democrats on the defensive, while at the same time uniting disparate elements within their own party. Christian conservatives like vouchers because they would mean more children going to indoctrinating religious schools, and economic conservatives like them because they introduce competitive market forces in education. "We win just by debating school choice," said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative, at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

It's true. The fraud is flawless. That is unless Republican disingenuousness starts to show or they get too greedy too fast.

Well, welcome to Tallahassee, Fla., capital city of exposed disingenuousness and unbridled greed.

After "opportunity scholarships" sailed through the Florida Legislature on a mainly party-line vote in 1999, 52 students from "F"-rated schools were given thousands of dollars in state money to attend private schools. But before the camel's nose even had time to take a whiff under the tent, state legislators were pushing the body in.

In 2000, a new law expanded the program to make vouchers available to 350,000 disabled students in the state regardless of family income. And this year the Legislature is giving serious consideration to a proposal giving vouchers to any student who attends an overcrowded school. The catch here is that Florida schools are notoriously underfunded by the Legislature, so much so that currently one in five students receives instruction in a sardine can known as a portable classroom. It's a condition that crosses socioeconomic lines, afflicting schools in affluent communities as well those along poverty belts. And Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, the bill's sponsor, was not the least bit shy about his long-range voucher intent: "It appears this is the nose of the camel under the tent. Maybe it is."

So here it is, the lie laid bare. In two years, vouchers in Florida have gone from a limited program designed to help primarily minority kids in bad schools to an upper middle-class entitlement. The rhetoric about educational opportunities for the poor has served its purpose and can now be discarded. The real agenda: undermining public schools and diverting tax money to private and parochial schools, has been put on track.

Since President Bush is proposing to borrow portions of his younger brother's idea, with a "failing school" voucher program at the federal level, the Florida experience is worth considering. Republicans might call this clever politics, but in the scam business it's called a bait-and-switch.