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A recent spate of articles claimed that Bush insiders now acknowledge that the Bush proposal for a national education voucher proposal will likely be bargained away in order to strengthen congressional prospects for the rest of the Bush education program. And Rod Paige, the Bush choice for education secretary, went out of his way in his confirmation testimony to reassure Sen. Kennedy that vouchers were not one of his priorities.

On the face of it, this looks like a clear defeat for the forces of educational liberty and a harbinger of worse things to come from a Bush administration. While this may be so, it is also true that a national voucher plan may not be the best object of moral conservative hopes and political efforts anyway. It is a complicated issue, and deserves some broader perspective.

The fundamental case for vouchers is one of justice rooted in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Among the various “unalienable” rights not explicitly listed in the Declaration is surely the right of parents — barring clear, dramatic and rare cases of incapacity — to maintain direct substantive control over the education of their children. This right is unalienable because it truly cannot be given away, which is the real meaning of unalienable. A parent can no more arrange for someone else to be ultimately responsible for the education of his child than he can for that child’s feeding or shelter. The parental claim that the education of his child is his own business derives directly from the fact that the education of that child is inescapably his duty.

Education, of course, is much more than the acquisition of the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. The most important aspect of education, in fact, is the moral and spiritual formation that inevitably occurs, for better or worse, during the years of childhood. The true fruit of education is not what the child can do, but what kind of person he is. Accordingly, it is above all, with respect to education as directed to the formation of character, that the unalienable right of the parents must be respected.

From the beginning of the American experience, these truths have meant that education has been primarily a local affair. Many other countries — where the education of children has been understood to be important first to the country or the state and only secondarily to the person — have educational traditions of centralized control and national standards. In America, self-government has always included self-government in education, and that has meant preservation of local initiative and local control precisely so that parents could exercise their essential role in the process. The entire history of the public school movement in America must be understood in this context, or we will fundamentally misunderstand its meaning and justification.

The public schools of the 19th century arose, for the most part, in conformity with the American tradition of parental control, and were usually quite aggressive in undertaking the mission of moral formation that decent parents expected of them. Because of the overwhelmingly Protestant character of the country, however, it was perhaps natural that what became the “standard issue” program of moral formation in American public schools was, in fact, more narrowly based on a particular religious understanding than what American principle allows. It was natural, but regrettable, because it forced good citizens — chiefly, in those days, Catholics and Jews — to pay taxes to educate their neighbors’ children as well as to make great sacrifices to set up their own Catholic or Jewish system. It was wrong to force this sacrifice upon them rather than to make greater efforts to make the system of publicly funded education more responsive to the sectarian diversity of the citizenry.

Today a number of moral conservatives, including many Protestants, are in a situation similar to that of their Catholic brethren of a century ago. Religious parents quite reasonably view the typical effect of the public school establishment as a state-imposed “moral” formation in secular relativism, if not worse. They face the choice of paying for the corruption of their own children, or of paying twice over — in taxes for public schools and tuition for private ones to which they send their children — to avoid such corruption. The voucher movement has arisen chiefly in response to this dilemma, as parents around the country have demanded that the financial sacrifice they make in tax dollars for the sake of education correspond in some way to the high goals they have for the education of their children.

The failure of political efforts to pass voucher systems in the last couple of decades has produced an incrementalist approach from some conservatives, namely to try pilot programs that target the poor, racial minorities and failing schools. This has the virtues of attracting some liberal support, costing less and perhaps breaking through the judicial barriers to vouchers. Indeed, rising parental support for vouchers among inner-city parents has been a powerful success for the movement.

But the focus on vouchers as a solution for the failure of public education to teach the basics of literacy to underprivileged kids has come at the price of neglecting the primary reason for the movement. The history of American education shows that the primary reason for vouchers is not disparity of results according to race or income — or simply low test scores — but rather the moral content, or lack thereof, imposed by contemporary public education in defiance of the moral aspirations of American parents for their children.

Similarly, privatization efforts, or education-for-profit plans — though innovative and less costly — may involve the same moral ambiguities, remoteness from parents and close connection to the educrat establishment of liberal ideologues and teachers unions. The existing schools are not just badly managed and therefore, perhaps, to be saved by a CEO from the business world. More importantly, they have lost their connection to our civic and moral roots — something a CEO may or may not know much about. It is not at all clear that education “contractors” will understand or respect the danger presented by the moral deficit in modern public education, or that a system of such providers in close connection to the existing governmental educational establishment will offer the choices that are needed.

In the recent campaign, President-elect Bush offered a voucher program at the federal level. It featured testing, setting minimal standards and then cutting off Title One funds to schools with a three year record of unsatisfactory progress towards meeting these standards. Since the direct funding of primary education is constitutionally beyond the authority of the feds, one might argue that Bush was offering all he really could. Even so, the proposal attracted the ire of the left and it looks like Rod Paige, the new secretary of education, won’t push hard for it anyway.

This may not be too bad a thing, for several reasons. Federal funds imply federal standards and controls of some sort. Such governmental tentacles are to be feared — as some moral conservative opponents of vouchers have pointed out. Yet a nation of citizens who really intend to retain supervision over their childrens’ education will need, at some point, to recall that government money is really their own and that the terms of its use are subject to the people’s constitutional will — not the bureaucrat’s prejudice. Critics of a federal voucher program may be right in pointing out, however, that taming the feds is harder than taming city hall. A voucher program that represents a local alternative to the local public school is much less likely to enmesh private or home-schoolers in dictatorial bureaucratic control than is a national federal grant program.

Moreover, targeting on poor or failing districts obscures the moral issue, as I noted above. While it is true that the parents in such districts are more at the mercy of the ideologues in the teachers’ union than are parents in better neighborhoods, this argument was not prominent in arguments for the Bush plan. Secretary-designate Paige seems likely to have a knack for cracking the whip over failing public schools to make them teach reading more effectively, which would eliminate the Bush argument for school choice altogether.

The voucher movement, fittingly enough, will have to succeed without direct support from Washington. It remains the responsibility of a free citizenry to fashion in its local educational efforts, as in our political life generally, the effective unity of rightly diverse communities. Ultimately, the very notion of public education cannot be sustained unless the perverse federal misunderstanding of the First Amendment is abandoned and the possibility of real moral formation in public schools is restored.

In the meantime, we must work to ensure that parents, who are unable in good conscience to send their children to the local government school, are not obliged to pay twice for the education of those children. Apart from the continued tyrannical interventions of the federal judiciary, this will remain a local, or at most a statewide, battle.

If we entertain low expectations for Washington’s help in the moral and civic education of our children, even in a GOP administration, we will be forced to reach down into our reserves of political and moral will and do the job ourselves. That could be an education in itself, for conservatives and, indeed, all Americans. Fighting for vouchers — for the right reason — remains a key assignment of all Americans who seek to defend the unalienable right of parents to the moral and material liberty they need if they are to fulfill before God their responsibility to form the souls of their children.

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