Perhaps the critical turning point in Campaign '96 occurred in the second presidential debate, held in San Diego, shortly after the Clinton-Gore re-election effort had invested some millions of fastidiously laundered Indonesian rupiahs into a massive buy for a TV spot condemning a slow-motion, black & white Bob Dole for voting against the creation of the Department of Education.
At that dramatic moment in American history, the shrewd Kansan stalked like a big game hunter. Just as his prey loped into his cross-hairs, he squeezed the trigger. "Aha! You've revealed yourself as a fraud to every American voter," Senator Dole glared at President Clinton. "You say you're a New Democrat, you mouth cliches like 'the era of big government is over,' but you are a hopeless defender of the old-time medicine. Today, right here in this campaign, you equate curing a problem with creating a federal bureaucracy named after the problem. You think each social ill has a Washington solution, and the fact that the test scores of millions of young Americans have been in free fall since the Department of Education scheme was concocted doesn't phase you in the slightest. And why should it? You've got your kid in a private school."
Well, OK. It never happened. Yeah, there was a San Diego debate. And the Clinton campaign attack ads aired on every TV monitor in America. But Bob Dole never responded precisely this way. Or any other way, come to think of it.
The Washington Post recently displayed the following banner front-page headline: "D.C. Schools Called a Failure." The Control Board, an outside agency which now administers city finances pursuant to what would be called a bankruptcy reorganization in the business world, performed its own expert evaluation of the system and gave it "an absolute F." Thank goodness, Mr. President, for Sidwell Friends!
The District's public schools do have some big-time social problems to cope with, yet they spend in excess of $10,000 per student per year to achieve at least some results–yet even a D is beyond their grasp. What tony private academies would such a stipend access? One wonders how abolishing the school system and paying every parent $10,000 per child could fail to result in a far superior system. Do the math: a 25-child class pulling in one quarter of a million dollars annually. What kind of educational experience might be afforded in the open market with this tidy sum?
Instead, the powers that be prefer to fund a "dysfunctional" system that fails students and displays widespread corruption–a "deplorable record…by every important educational and management measure."
Ready for the Washington Post editorial spin? The Post is rightly ashamed of the situation in an unsigned editorial titled, "An Absolutely Devastating Report." They note the report's conclusion: "For each additional year that students stay in D.C. public schools, the less likely they are to succeed." They urge "in the strongest terms possible" that everyone go out and read the report. And then…nothing. "Radical changes" are called for–all comfortably within the present structure. The D.C. public school managers have already revealed that they are neither motivated by the success of their charges nor much constrained by legal rules. How long before we send in a rescue party for these helpless kids?
Will no one so much as utter the v-word? Vouchers give parents of poor kids a means of escape. Who will dare to say the word? Oh, yeah. Bob Dole. Look what happened to him.
The Clintonites loved Dole talking vouchers–and voting against the DOE–as they brilliantly exploited education as their key wedge issue with soccer moms. While school choice would bring huge relief to the urban poor (whose allegiance to the Democratic Party was not in play), it will do little for middle-class folks. Clinton-Gore realized that suburbanites don't care about the kids downtown stuck in "dysfunctional" schools. They care about their kids–in pretty decent schools–and their property values.
The simple financial calculus: Housing prices reflect local school district performance. People pay to be where their kids get a better education; hence, they bid up the price of real estate in areas with "free" access to high-quality public schools. Call this the "Johnny Can Read Premium." Those in the ritzy precincts don't need to go the voucher route. Moreover, if everyone else gets the schooling opportunity they've already assumed a mortgage for, they will lose their JCRP.
This is the ugly financial story lurking behind the soccer-mom pandering on education. Suburbanites fear "radical" or "extreme" measures that would open up their schools to the riffraff from surly neighborhoods–and wash away the JCRP, because no longer would aspiring parents have to "move on up" to get their kid into a decent school.
And so the president's neglect of the plight of the thousands of poor, mostly black youngsters held hostage in America's worst–and most expensive–schools in D.C. is not the slightest bit out of character. Hauling water for teachers' unions, cynically manipulating the soccer mom vote, trashing the speechless Bob Dole as "wrong in the past, wrong for our future," all while abandoning the kids at risk–well, that's what seizing the moral high ground on education was really all about.