A battle is shaping up between the president and the Congress over an issue of great importance in the effort to renew effective self-government in America. The House has passed a bill to provide school vouchers for children in the District of Columbia. The president, cheered on by the NEA, the national PTA and all the usual suspects, has vowed to veto the bill.

President Clinton claims to be concerned for the poor. And yet he denies to low-income parents the same range of educational choice that richer people have, even though the tax dollars are available in abundance to provide that choice. So his policy ensures that because of their poverty they are subject to the domination of the failed government educational system.

And he does it, of course, for political reasons. The powerful lobby of the teachers unions and the education establishment has a vested interest in the existing system. They have shown that they don’t really care what is best for students, because this is the system on which they have built their power. Any shift of power back into the hands of parents — particularly the lower-income parents who are now the hostages of the top-heavy, government-dominated bureaucratic system — can’t be tolerated.

A voucher system would turn parents into empowered clients who could send their kids elsewhere if the government schools mishandle their education. And what could be more constructive for the education of children in this country than to put parents back in the driver’s seat of education? It would send throughout the whole school system the salutary message that educators have to pay attention to the parents they serve.

Parents are the key to education. Everything depends on whether they properly meet their responsibility. One way we can help parents respect that responsibility is to make sure that they have the power they need in order to exercise it. Right now a chunk of that power is taken out of the hands of many lower income parents because they can’t decide where their kids go to school. They are taxed to pay for government schools, but are not allowed the responsibility, which ought to go along with providing the money, of judging which institutions do the best job.

With vouchers, parents would begin to take their choices more seriously. It’s just a fact that people with money to spend realize more clearly that they have a decision to make, and they think harder and more actively than they would otherwise. The voucher system will lead to more responsible parenting, because empowered parents will be more responsible parents.

Some people have expressed concern that vouchers would permit government regulation of all schools, including religious ones. Any law that implemented a voucher program would have to guard against this danger with explicit language to protect the autonomy of institutions where vouchers were used. Otherwise there is the very real danger that government will dictate policies that would destroy the special character of the institutions.

This danger is real, but there is no ultimate safeguard against it except our own vigilance. Whether or not tax dollars are involved, the government will try to control our children’s education. No approach to education is less dominated by government than home schooling, yet with H.R. 6 several years ago the government tried to dictate the terms of home schooling. Without the excuse that government funds were involved, they just went ahead and tried to do it. And if people hadn’t been vigilant, control would have been imposed.

Since they can do it anyway, the fact that we refrain from taking voucher money won’t protect us. The only thing that will is our vigilance, exercised in and through our representatives. And since we are going to have to be vigilant anyway, we ought to be vigilant with our own dollars in hand, so that we can use them for our children’s education in the right way.

Recently it has become clear that opinion in the black community has shifted decisively in favor of vouchers, simply as a result of greater understanding of the case for them. As people begin to see that vouchers would mean getting control back of an educational process that hasn’t been serving their kids, support will continue to increase. I believe that we will see an awakening of public understanding of this issue, and that in a few years a major consensus will emerge.

President Clinton is fighting a cynical rear-guard battle to delay this consensus, and we should support the Republicans in Congress who are pressing the fight.

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