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The growing complexities of school choice.

He who rises by the symbol usually falls by the symbol. Like Richard Nixon lumbering off to China, for which he would have demanded that anyone else be impeached, President Clinton will have to preside over something called "school choice" before he is through.

That's because he sent his daughter to a private school. The enrollment of Chelsea Clinton in Sidwell Friends School brought questions about why everyone can't have such a choice. The answer: For the same reason everyone can't choose to drive a Jaguar.

But school choice has complicated itself beyond the simple answer.

The preferred answer is that if people can't afford Sidwell Friends' tuition, said to be $10,800, the government should give them vouchers so they can. It's a dumb answer. If you are $10,800 short of the tuition, and the government gave everyone $1,000 vouchers, the tuition would go up to $11,800 (it's no loss to parents of students already there), and you would still be $10,800 short.

Clinton, a strong supporter of public schools - in Arkansas if not in Washington - inclines more toward limiting the choice to public schools. That's an even dumber answer. If Public School 101 is better than Public School 102, the school board should be impeached, the principal fired and the faculty changed at 102. They aren't doing their jobs. If there is no difference, what's the choice?

(I know, I know: The difference is in the student body. But then the covert choice is to create a permanent underclass surviving on crime. Some choice.)

There are real choices to be made between public and private or parochial schools because the latter are not, and don't pretend to be, one-size-fits-all. The choice is not, however, available to all - for the same reason the choice between the Jaguar and a used Escort is not available to all.

There was a story in the Holy Herald, published for parents and friends of Holy Name School in West Palm Beach, that illustrates why the choice for parochial might be made.

The art teacher, according to the story, had painted "a geometric dance of pastel shapes and paths" in the hallways. The effect, we are told, was "stunning and lighthearted. Generally, the students have really taken to the addition with delight; all except one kindergartner who announced with horror that someone was really going to get in trouble for drawing on the walls!"

It couldn't have happened in a public school. If it did, it would have required school board action and possibly approval of the design by a panel of politically connected artists. Then, after a ton of paperwork, when the hall was painted, someone who didn't have the word would come along with a work order and repaint the whole thing vomit-green again.

The story of the Tower of Babel is the story of the world's first bureaucracy, right down to the strange tongues, which in schools are called educationese and bureaucratese.

The bureaucracy is erected to protect public money - which, in a tax-supported system, is thought to need more protection than the students the system nominally exists to serve.

What Congress giveth is public money, and if Congress votes to allow tuition vouchers or tax credits to be applied to school tuition, it will come with all the strings that automatically attach to public money. Let's not kid ourselves that vouchers would unleash creativity in public schools. But they would require art teachers in parochial schools to demonstrate that the children are "geometry-ready" before applying the first pastel parallelogram.

The argument is made that competition is good for everything, and we are supposed to look at how well it works in consumerism. Well, I can't get ribbons for the typewriters I chose nor film for the camera I chose, without great effort, and I can't get Gillette Blue Blades with the sharpest edges ever honed at all, even though nothing has improved upon them. The choice in consumerism is the choice that is made by those choosing what to offer us.

In Florida, 47 percent of public-school students have legally recognized "special needs." Almost anything large enough to get a constituency can get itself designated a "special need," which demands, of course, "special funds." Politics (the nonpartisan variety) has turned public schools into petri dishes for all the social problems adults can't or don't want to solve.

Because Chelsea Clinton is going to a private school, we will be exercised for the next few years by sloganeering over the amorphous and double-edged notion of "school choice." I say muffle that symbol.
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Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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