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Vouchers Answer New Segregation in Our Schools

Commentary

Poor children are being blocked from getting a decent education.

June 30, 2002|PAUL GOLDMAN

From busing to vouchers, two U.S. Supreme Courts--one liberal, one conservative--have now both come to the same conclusion: Our public schools are unacceptably segregated.

Fifty years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, our poorest kids face a modern educational segregation as debilitating and socially divisive as the older version. It is a harsh judgment, bitterly resisted by the education establishment.

In his time, Chief Justice Earl Warren was vilified by the right for busing. With last week's decision, we can now expect Chief Justice William Rehnquist to be castigated by the left for suggesting that vouchers may be a possible new remedy.

Democrats particularly need to heed this message, even if we object to the messenger, especially after the Gore-versus-Bush decision of 2000.

We need to be honest and understand the reason five justices felt it was necessary to give our public education system this jolt of judicial electricity.

Fifty years ago, the political elite in the U.S. Senate were still refusing to give black children an equal education. So, led by Chief Justice Warren, a unanimous court decided to take matters into its own hands.

The justices ruled that state and local governments must integrate their public school systems. The doctrine of "separate but equal" was rejected. Or so we hoped.

Not surprisingly, such a sweeping social intervention by an appointed court met with massive resistance. But over time, educational systems across the nation began to integrate through busing.

Given our segregated housing patterns, there was no way to achieve meaningful public school integration without busing.

Did public school integration work? It did for me and most of the nation. It changed us, redeeming a country and sending forth a new burst of freedom.

But last week, the Supreme Court took a look at nearly half a century of post-Brown social statistics and came to this conclusion: For too many of the Americans who need it most, the revolution started by Warren and implemented by busing was a total failure.

Sadly, no thoughtful and objective person can disagree with this conclusion. As Bob Dylan's protest song against segregation asked: How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?

Our most needy children are far too frequently suffering under the type of educational disparity that helped lead to the Brown decision.

For purposes of argument, let me accept the proposition that the current leaders of public education could rectify the situation if given all the tax money they want. The reality is they are never going to get that money. They can call it a lack of will on the part of the elected elite or a lack of compassion on the part of the people, the overwhelming majority of whom have sufficient educational choice for their children.

To repeat: Our poorest kids are trapped in their current educational segregation. Enter, then, a split Supreme Court.

Those opposing the legality of the Ohio voucher plan are good and honorable men and women. They believe passionately in public education. But at the same time, they and the political elite have the luxury of not feeling the pain of their principles.

At this juncture in our history, this is not a situation we can continue to tolerate. In so many walks of life the elite live under one standard, while the poorest Americans are forced to live under a harsher standard of morality and social conduct.

To me, the voucher decision must be seen as a wake-up call, drawn from the great observation of Oliver Wendell Holmes: The law ultimately must reflect the common sense of the human condition.

Our educational system has again forced our poorest children to endure an unacceptable modern segregation, something that should have been as repugnant to us today as the older segregation was 50 years ago. But we, as a people, failed to act. This cannot continue.

So the Supreme Court decided, again, to pull the fire alarm. I would have preferred that the court take a different approach. Still, men and women of goodwill can do some fine-tuning. But this cannot happen unless we all recognize the terrible social injustice this conservative court declared unacceptable.

If this opinion spurs us to finally make good on the promise of Brown to society's most vulnerable children--if it forces conservatives and liberal pontificators out of their limousines and pushes them to honestly work for a more level playing field--then our system of laws will be better for it.

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Paul Goldman is a political consultant and former member of the Democratic National Committee .

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