At a friendly dinner bash some months back, a woman reflected upon how her schooling had affected her upbringing. "I went to Catholic school," she said, "and I suppose that's why I hate the Church." This prompted a similar introspection among her dinner guests and hurled a revelation at me. "You know, I went to public schools," I pointed out, "and that's why I hate the government."
I was reminded of this incident by the hysteria gripping California as it confronts the so-called School Choice Initiative. This November, voters will decide whether or not parents should be given education vouchers for $2,600—about half the annual per-pupil operating expense of California's public schools—redeemable at any school, public or private. With so many Assistant Deputy Vice Principals for Extracurricular Activities' jobs on the line, there is naturally considerable panic. But the frenzied pace of scare-mongering in the press exceeds even the lofty heights attained in the 1978 campaign against Prop. 13, when cataclysmic reports (such as the UCLA business school forecast that tax relief would plunge the entire nation into a depression of 1930s proportions) dominated the media.
My favorite fantasy concoction in this skirmish involves the allegation that the measure is a plot, essentially, by the Antichrist. Mainstream news organizations report that "witches' covens" will spring into the education market just to soak up "public funds." What else could one expect from a referendum fathered by radical evangelicals, as newspaper writers have identified the propellants of the school-choice measure. (Milton Friedman, a vocal choice supporter, is—to my knowledge—the only Christian fundamentalist named "Uncle Miltie.")
A terror campaign is being waged by the public-school cartel, drowning in public funds of their own. They are prudently willing to spend money to keep making money; at least $10 million will be poured into the disinformation offensive now in progress. Apparently, it is being swallowed whole by journalists who know that "choice" initiatives are never progressive unless contained within the walls of the mother's womb. (I have recommended that supporters of the proposition rename it The Post-Fetus School Choice Initiative.)
The slander that makes me giggle the loudest is the attack on the quality of private schools. Witches might run some pretty wacky schoolhouses and, Halloween parties excepted, disappoint a few young scholars. (Assuming they could get them to enroll in the first place; I have yet to hear a proud papa brag, "Hey Ralph, I got my smart, little Jennifer on the waiting list for that exclusive Devil's Cult Academy. Sorry about your Mary Beth striking out on the pentagram free-flow entrance exam.")
But it truly is a brilliant political gimmick to shift the story about public schools to something so absurdly moronic that, by the time one stops laughing, the target has moved on. That target damn well ought to be the California public schools.
Don't argue with me now, NEA—I am the product of your good work. I am a linear extrapolation of the California public schools: Elementary, junior high, and high school were spent entirely within their confines. (I could keep going, through undergraduate, graduate, and faculty employment at the University of California, but that would be rubbing it in.) Witchcraft? You want to see some real educational voodoo?
I remember a teacher at Granada Hills High who delighted in pounding home the fact that "anything women could do, men could do better." He devilishly pointed out that traditional female chores, like cooking or home design, were inevitably performed on the world-class level (as opposed to the stay-at-home mom level) by the machismo gender. He smiled while repeating racial epithets (telling us once that the Japanese were considered "all asses and elbows" due to their success in the gardening trade, presumably owing to male Japanese gardeners) and permitted virtually no thoughtful response—challengers were gleefully ridiculed.
Not so in my eighth- and ninth-grade history classes. I loved this teacher's classes because we got to talk back, and there was plenty of idiocy in the air. I can still hear him wailing his cherished syllogism: "If we can kill people in Vietnam, the people of Watts can riot." Awesome, dude. This man bet me—in 1966—that within 10 years the United States would annex Canada (or was it the other way around?). If you're reading, Mr. Turrow, you owe me 10 bucks.
I recall a Northridge Junior High math teacher who was so incredibly inept at explaining the intricacies of the decimal number system that he would become swept up in theoretical arguments with 13-year-olds—and lose. And there was my 11th-grade history teacher, who assigned a paper on The Prince. Since it was the year Soviet tanks ruthlessly crushed the Prague Spring, I alertly made a contemporary comparison and titled my paper "The Prince, by Ivan Machiavelli." She gave me a D, noting contemptuously that Machiavelli was Italian, not Russian.
Given what I had to swallow, I might like to check out the core requirements over at Sorcerer's Preparatory. But whereas I'm joking, the public-school officionadoes are apparently serious: how else to interpret the claim of these hands-on experts that vouchers are bad because parents, given half a choice, will yank their kids out of public schools and deposit them in Satanic Tech?
And if there is one thing I did learn, it's this: If we can keep people locked up in public schools, the people of Watts can riot.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: Pro-Choice?".