"Two words: Ted Kennedy."
That was Bush administration official Nina Rees's reply when asked at an education conference last summer why the president had achieved so little of his school-choice agenda. Ms. Rees was referring, of course, to Sen. Kennedy's role in marking up the president's "No Child Left Behind" legislation to make sure that children trapped in failing inner-city schools would not be given a private-school option.
Now, just a few months later, Ted Kennedy has become, if not irrelevant, no longer a valid excuse. After the midterm elections and the Supreme Court's Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision finding school vouchers constitutional, the president has an unprecedented opportunity to reform American public education. When the new Congress assembles in January, he should call upon the lawmakers, who provide the funding for the District of Columbia's government, to pass a law mandating vouchers for the city's schools -- among the very worst in the nation. Now the executive and the legislative branches, with the blessing of the judicial, can unite to create a pilot voucher program aimed at poor minority kids trapped in the capital's failing public schools.
President Bush should stand in the doorway of one of D.C.'s worst schools -- and there are all too many to choose from -- and issue a declaration of conscience that never again will poor black kids in the nation's capital be forced to attend a school that dooms them to failure. Here's what the president should say:
"The existence of so many failing schools in the nation's capital is a tragedy and a disgrace. Liberating poor minority kids from inner city schools that don't work is the one remaining civil-rights battle that America must win. We know that in the more affluent neighborhoods of this city practically no parents send their children to the public schools -- and who can blame them? But it is morally wrong to have one system of schools for the wealthy and the middle-class and another for the minorities and the poor. We used to call that segregation.
"Let us have the courage finally to create equal educational opportunities for all our children -- to make sure that, truly, no child gets left behind. If we do that in America's capital city, we will be sending a beacon of hope to the families in our inner cities struggling -- and often so tragically not succeeding -- to find decent schools for their children."
By creating a school-choice program in Washington the president would set off a chain reaction of voucher programs in other cities. He would force the teachers' unions that are the Democratic Party's primary interest group to take the education of children at least as seriously as the employment and working conditions of adults. He would utterly change the conversation about how to make the nation's inner-city schools give kids the skills that make our opportunity society a reality rather than merely an ideal, and he would quicken the pace of school reform all across America.
We have tried for years to fix America's broken schools by pumping more and more money into them. School spending nationwide is five times greater in real terms than it was a half century ago. But our schools are as bad as they have ever been. All these efforts at improvement have failed because there is something wrong with the system as it now exists.
It is a system that puts the interests of its employees ahead of the interests of its children. There are many caring and hard working educators teaching in the public schools, but they too are trapped in a dysfunctional system in which merit goes unrewarded and incompetence and cold-hearted callousness are never punished.
By extending to poor families the freedom to choose their children's schools, we will not be harming the public schools, as some fear. To the contrary: the competition that school choice will bring is probably the only thing that could shake the district's public-school system out of its present paralysis. After voucher programs got started in Milwaukee and Cleveland, the public-school system had no choice but to reform in order to keep families from leaving. As a result, many of the public schools in those cities are now improving.
With the present political climate and the realignment in the Congress, President Bush would win a fight for a D.C. vouchers bill with a first-round knockout. In that victory, he would also dramatically revive the "compassionate conservative" agenda he sketched out so earnestly before the war on terror demanded his full attention -- an agenda that had as one of its key points making sure that poor children would get the education they need to succeed as full and equal citizens in America's modern economy.
It's time to recognize that the poor children in this country can't wait any longer. We must allow families whose kids are trapped in perennially failing schools the same kinds of educational choices that other families -- including those of so many lawmakers -- have always enjoyed.