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PERSPECTIVE ON SCHOOL VOUCHERS : Prop. 174 Puts the Students First : Critics defend one of the worst performing systems in the world because they are largely responsible for it.

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The citizens of California have the opportunity to change the course of American education. On Nov. 2, they will vote on Proposition 174, the Parental Choice in Education Amendment. Proposition 174 would allow parents to choose the best school for their children by providing them with vouchers redeemable at a private or religious school for $2,600 (more than 60% of California private schools cost $2,600 or less), or at a public school, where they would be worth $5,200, the full state allotment per student.

Here are some of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of Proposition 174.

* School choice will provide equal educational opportunity. Proposition 174 gives all California parents, regardless of income, the freedom to choose better schools. If parents are happy with the public schools that their children attend, they may choose to keep them there. If they are unhappy with a school, they can send their children to another, better public school, or to a private one. Currently, except for the well-off, parents are without recourse. This is fundamentally unfair. Proposition 174 also provides an important moral component, by allowing parents to choose schools where their own values will be affirmed rather that undermined.

* School choice will advance social justice. Proposition 174 will allow both the poor and the middle class greater opportunity for educational advancement. Low-income families are singularly disadvantaged: You could not design an education system that does more to destroy the hopes and aspirations of students than what we now have in our largest urban districts. The self-serving philosophy that guides the education Establishment is that all public schools must be kept open, regardless of how poorly they are educating students. They have therefore declared that their members’ interests are more important than the interests of children.

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* School choice makes economic sense. Three Nobel laureates, more than 140 leading economists and every major anti-tax group in California have endorsed Proposition 174. Independent analyses conclude that the more people use vouchers, the more money the taxpayers will save. Increased private-school enrollment will also reduce the need to build hundreds of new public schools to accommodate the 1.8 million new students who are expected to enter the system by the year 2000.

* School choice will ensure accountability. Opponents of Proposition 174 argue that school choice will “destroy public education.” Nonsense. What is true is that bad public schools will be forced, through competition, to improve. The really awful schools that don’t improve will be compelled to close down, and that’s precisely what should happen.

Twice as many public school teachers in California send their children to private schools as do non-teachers. Those who know best what is going on in our public schools are sending their children elsewhere--while the teachers’ unions are doing everything in their power to discourage others from doing the same thing.

* School choice will return power to parents. Proposition 174 will break the California education unions’ lock on power. Currently, the unions make it almost impossible for good teachers to be rewarded or for bad teachers to be held accountable. The teachers’ unions recognize that school choice is a direct challenge to their power. That’s why the California Teachers Assn. and the National Education Assn. will spend more than $9 million to defeat Proposition 174. “CTA political muscle is not only used to transfer income from taxpayers to its members; it has also messed up California’s school system economically and educationally,” concluded Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer in a recent Forbes profile.

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Events in California should be placed in a broader context.

Education unions everywhere are under siege and on the defensive--and for good reason. They have opposed every meaningful education reform proposed during the past two decades. They are largely responsible for engineering the worst decline in the history of American education. And they are now in the position of defending one of the worst-performing systems in the world.

The education Establishment is still powerful, but it is intellectually bankrupt. It offers no serious ideas on how to reform and improve American education. None. And now it has become a merchant of fear. In the increasingly shrill world of the NEA and the CTA, allowing parents to pick the schools their children will attend raises the specter of “David Koresh High School,” science courses in which students learn how to make Molotov cocktails, witches’ covens, etc.

There are, of course, existing provisions to prevent these things from happening. More revealing is the mind-set it exposes: Parents, left to themselves, would allow awful things to be done to their children. The unions’ patronizing attitude toward parents is: We know better. The record clearly shows otherwise.

The American people increasingly believe that the education status quo is unacceptable. The revolution in American education will come, sooner or later. For the sake of California’s children, let’s hope it’s sooner.


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