WASHINGTON — Striving to shed their reputation as the party of the privileged, Republicans are promoting an idea aimed at improving the U.S. education system--the issue polls show uppermost in voters' minds.
The catch is that their favored concept has more support in the inner city, where children are often trapped in inferior schools, than in suburbia, where school systems generally get high marks and the GOP wins the vast majority of its votes.
The Republicans bill their approach as school choice, under which parents would get public funds--or vouchers--to send their children to private schools. Though this concept has been around awhile and, so far, has failed dismally in every significant ballot test, it is now being pressed more aggressively and broadly than ever on Capitol Hill.
Last week, a GOP bid to showcase vouchers by implementing them for residents of the District of Columbia triggered a partisan brawl. Democrats, amid talk of a possible veto by President Clinton, charged that the measure would undermine support for public education, For their part, Republicans pointedly recalled that the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had passed over the district's public schools to send their daughter, Chelsea, to Washington's tony Sidwell Friends private school.
So why are the Republicans fighting so hard for the sake of the District of Columbia, where their votes can be measured by the thimbleful?
"It's the right thing to do," said Republican National Committee Chairman James Nicholson. "Kids in the cities and the minority community are not getting a good basic education. And without that they are not able to reach for the brass ring."
But more than that, the voucher approach gives the GOP something it badly needs: a way to address the education issue that is consistent with its fundamental mistrust of government and its faith in the free market. "This provides a significant alternative to welfare programs and racial preference as a way to help inner-city people lift themselves out of poverty," said Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a conservative public-interest legal group that defends voucher plans against court challenges.
More broadly, the voucher plan helps the party present itself as truly interested in governing. "If you are going to be a majority party, you have to have solutions for areas that don't necessarily vote Republican," said Marshall Wittman, an official with the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank. "People who live in Orange County have some interest in the conditions in Los Angeles, because [those conditions] do have some bearing on their lives."
He added: "There's a growing realization [among Republican leaders] that you can't just become a national party on the basis of cutting government and cutting taxes."
Up to now, the voucher idea has been a tough sell, except among minorities. A nationwide survey of blacks, conducted earlier this year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, showed that, by 58% to 37%, respondents favored a voucher plan that would help them pay tuition at the private or public school of their choice.
David Bositis, who conducted the poll, believes that this sentiment is more reflective of disgust with public schools than enthusiasm for vouchers, about which most of those surveyed had little detailed knowledge. Many African Americans, he said, "feel that anything would be better than the schools they have right now. If they thought they could get a good education for children in segregated schools, they'd say OK to that."
Bositis also noted that when the center in a separate poll asked whites about vouchers, attitudes were precisely split: 47% favored the idea, 47% opposed it.
Even more telling, voucher foes claim, are the results of statewide initiatives in Colorado in 1992, California in 1993 and Washington state in 1996 in which voucher plans were overwhelmingly defeated.
To most voters, "vouchers are a radical idea," said John Petrocik, a political scientist at UCLA. "It's very easy to make the case that it will ruin public education and create new levels of segregation."
"I don't think we've won this debate among suburbanites," acknowledged Nina Shokraii, education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. "They think their public schools are just fine, and they don't see the need for a voucher."
"In terms of forums in which to advance issues, the ballot box is the worst for us," added Bolick of the Institute for Justice. He put part of the blame for this on heavy spending by voucher opponents, notably state branches of the National Education Assn. "I don't think you will see any other school-choice ballot initiatives until we have financial resources to level the playing field," Bolick said.