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

Leading the Charge in All Directions

James Skillen


February 17, 1997

Whatever else you think of him, no one can accuse President Clinton of being quiescent. Plans for action flood from the White House. Take education. Clinton has decided that his "No. 1 priority as president" is to ensure that Americans have "the best education in the world." So his State of the Union address last week overflowed with public education initiatives. On the other hand, his administration has also been working on behalf of pupils in religious schools by seeking to overturn a pernicious Supreme Court church-state ruling. Government has a key role in education, even in an era when "big government is dead" (Clinton's words). Trouble is, Clinton is pointing the government in two different directions.

The president's State of the Union wish list runs from the trivial to the ultra sensitive, from linking every classroom to the Internet to promoting character education and national school standards. He also called for a massive army of volunteers to promote reading skills, a White House conference on early childhood learning, toughened teacher training, federal spending on school construction, billions to cut the cost of attending college, and more.

The president announced these as initiatives to improve "American education." Their efficacy demands debate, of course. Beyond that, what's striking is that Clinton apparently thinks "American education" means "American public schools." In almost every case, both admonishments and blandishments are directed at government officials and the education institutions they operate. Indeed, the president evoked the option of "school choice" only to limit it to the government school system. And the charter schools he favors are too often only "public schools lite," not truly independent schools in a new framework of public accountability.

The overture to the Supreme Court is a wholly different matter. The ruling Clinton wants overturned is the decision that once forced my first grader to trudge through Iowa snows from his Christian school to secular ground in order to get remedial reading help. The three-decade-old federal Title I program pays public school districts to offer remedial education to all needy students, whatever school they attend. But in its 1985 ruling on a New York City case, Aguilar v. Felton, the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional for public school teachers to give assistance in religious schools. So districts have to station mobile classrooms off parochial-school property, transport the students to public schools, or (as in Iowa) buy a building next door to the forbidden territory.

New York City, claiming it wastes $6 million a year to comply with the Supreme Court's fastidiousness about religion, has pressed for the decision to be revisited. Last fall, the Clinton Education and Justice departments joined the City's appeal; this January the Court agreed to reconsider the issue.

Aguilar v. Felton represents church-state separationism run riot. Not many defend it. Still, a call for the Court to reverse itself rather than just rule differently in a new case is unusual, and nothing forced the federal government to join with New York City. Here the Clinton administration has chosen to go out of its way on behalf of students in religious schools.

So which kind of education does the administration support—only government schools or all schools? That's a false choice, of course. So if Clinton really wants to be an "education president," he should go beyond massively promoting government schools one day and defending religious pupils a bit the next day. What he needs is a strategy that will do justice to all schools. Hey, Mr. President, how about comprehensive school choice and meaningful charter schools?

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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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.”