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Poor people are perennial victims of many hoaxes, but probably none more cynical or threatening than the promise that school vouchers will deliver superior educations to their children.

The idea of giving tax dollars for parents to use to send their kids to private schools -- or to a public school in a suburb or district they think is better -- looks good on its face, especially when the voucher clamor is being sold as a "fairness" gesture that would give the poorest parents the same power of "choice" as the affluent now enjoy. But this is a snare, and a delusion that is being promoted mostly by people who don't truly care for the indigent -- people who in their hearts don't like being taxed for public education, who hate the teachers unions, who don't like the teaching of sex education or other things in the public schools, and on and on.

Consider the fight in Congress over whether to appropriate $7 million to provide $3,200 vouchers to 2,000 District of Columbia students whose families have incomes less than 185 percent of the poverty level. This mostly Republican-sponsored scheme is being offered in the name of "fairness."

There are more than 78,000 children enrolled in District of Columbia public schools, a large percentage of whom are poor. What would giving vouchers to 2,000 youngsters mean for the tens of thousands of kids who don't get such grants? It would simply intensify their mistaken notion that any private school is better than any public school, especially those in the nation's capital. Thus, demands would erupt for 10,000 vouchers next year, and 20,000 the next, so more and more parents might enroll their kids in "private" schools, including many schools that would be unaccredited or set up by con artists whose basic goal is to rake in those voucher dollars. Eventually, such a program would undermine all public education in America, a prospect that caused President Clinton to vow to veto the voucher measure should Congress pass it.

"I am baffled by the president's opposition," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican. "How could anybody deny a poor child the opportunity to escape some of the District's most violent and undisciplined schools?"

"Tragic," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, in describing Mr. Clinton's stance.

Armey and Gingrich have been in the forefront of lawmakers who oppose virtually all legislation that is designed to support food, welfare, tax and other policies and programs that would lift the level of life for America's poor families. It is still a truism that you can judge the worth of a piece of legislation by looking at who supports it. The voucher plan is very much part of a right-wing agenda.

There will never be enough private schools to replace the public schools or to accept even a fraction of the poor children. So we had better devote ourselves and our resources to trying to make the public schools proud rivals of any private school.

North America Syndicate

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