Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Who Are The Conservatives Now?

James Skillen


January 29, 2001

Not George W. Bush and Roderick Paige, the president's Secretary of Education. No, in this case, they are the liberals, almost radical liberals. Liberals want to free individuals from chains that hold them down against their will. Radical liberals want to replace any enslaving system with a liberating one so that no one will be born into chains in the first place.

Republicans and Democrats alike have finally agreed that, despite all federal efforts for more than three decades, far too many children in government owned and operated schools can't read or do math anywhere near the level at which they ought to be performing. In some cases, despite billions of federal dollars, entire schools are failing, reprehensibly so.

What should be done? For years and years, the Democrats worked to spend more money on more programs while Republicans worked to eliminate federal involvement in what they considered a local and state matter. Of course, federal spending amounts to less than 10 percent of all spending on education, so it can't be decisive. But can more federal money make a difference or might it simply add to the problems?

A conservative on this issue says either keep what we have or get government out. A liberal says, let's examine the system to see if we can release students from the chains that oppress them. Some of today's conservatives in Congress are Republicans who still wish President Reagan had eliminated the education department. But most of today's educational conservatives are Democrats. In fact, they are increasingly becoming reactionary conservatives.

What basis is there for such a charge? President Bush has raised a simple question with his new education plan. Why should the federal government continue to subsidize failure? Why should it continue to encourage states to keep children in chains? Past federal funding demanded very little by way of performance from the schools being subsidized. It did little to assure students stuck in failing schools that the promise of "free education" would be fulfilled for them. But instead of taking the conservative Republican approach of blaming government, Bush and Paige are even proposing an increase in federal spending for education. Yet the increase, they insist, must be tied to a genuinely liberal mandate, namely freeing children from the chains of bad schools.

The president and his education secretary are not radical liberals or they would have proposed that federal spending be tied to a requirement that states give all parents an equal opportunity, with equal funding, to choose good schools. That would be too much for congressional conservatives. So the president proposed only the tiniest new enforcement tool to pressure failing schools to perform. That tiny tool, which would use only a tiny bit of federal money, is the requirement that after a school has failed repeatedly—FAILED for three straight years—to teach children to read and count, only then would poor parents in those schools be allowed to use just $1500 to help them buy good education elsewhere.

Judging by the response of the reactionaries, you would think that the president had proposed to bomb China or to abolish the justice department. Reactionary conservatives like Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Richard Gephardt cried foul and said they were deeply troubled and fearful that such a tool would drain money from public schools.

Forget the poor children who aren't learning. Tighten the chains of their oppression. But don't allow any money to leave even the worst schools. What a terrifying thought for those who fear the wrath of the teachers' unions, which in turn fear they might come apart if parents ever gain the freedom to choose schools they really want for their children.

I can only hope that sooner rather than later, Bush and Paige will become radical liberals.

—James W. Skillen, President
   Center for Pulbic Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”