Saturday, August 10, 2002

So Vouchers Are Constitutional. Are They A Good Thing?

My Tribune column this week (Sunday, August 11) again concerns the vouchers and public financing of elections analogy. Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court heard the arguments in the challenge to the Clean Elections system, and I thought it worth a column to note that while the opponents use the broad constitutional rhetoric in public, that's not their actual legal position. They can't mean either the consequences of their rhetoric (which would eliminate vouchers) or their legal position (which would lead to truly bizarre results if people paying parking tickets are considered some sort of club or association, with greater rights than ordinary taxpayers).

Now that both public financing of campaigns and school vouchers are constitutional, it makes no sense to argue against one on broad constitutional terms while arguing equally strongly that the other is constitutional as well. So, both are permitted, but (as my Foreign Service friend Bob Featherstone used to say) just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Until this week, I reached different answers on the policy questions. I support public financing for campaigns, as it has enabled more people to run, reduced the influence of traditional fundraisers and "players" in vetting potential candidates, and has placed new emphasis on building grass-roots networks in campaigns. I opposed vouchers, because a state that has chronically underfunded public education, like Arizona, has no business running out and funding new experiments while shirking its existing commitments.

However, I don't have--at least not since the Cleveland decision--any fundamental argument against vouchers, and found myself unable to dispute the opinion piece by Brent Staples in the New York Times earlier this week. He argues that we should try vouchers because we have a moral obligation to offer as many ways out of failing schools and neighborhoods as possible, even though as a practical matter no voucher program will ever benefit more than a small number of students, and nobody should view vouchers as a panacea any more than opening a new hospital will cure all diseases. "[V]ouchers are one tool among many in the school reform arsenal....The country has a moral obligation to provide a lifeboat that, even though it contains limited seats, allows at least some students to bail out of schools that are killing their futures....Making up the distance will require a good deal more than a few lifeboats. What we need is a strong, national commitment to educational equality."

But now that the fundamental, constitutional question is answered, would a voucher system be good or bad? Yes, it's a band-aid, not a cure for cancer. But band-aids are good, so long as we can convince the people peddling the band-aids that we need to cure other diseases, too. So I've come around; let's try vouchers. However, I would welcome some company to my right willing to try another experiment, a "strong, national commitment to educational equality." That seems to me to be something that will require far more prayer and faith.

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