Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Trending Away: The Voucher Riptide

The public teachers unions are rich, powerful and vindictive. When California voted on a school voucher referendum a few years ago, the teachers union spent well over Ten Million Dollars to successfully defeat it. Despite the success of voucher programs in other states, no California Democrat has dared to propose such a program - even one limited to the worst of California's many dreadful school systems.

Yet, Dianne Feinstein now backs a school voucher program for Washington, D.C.

Why? Well, the reader is invited to read Senator Feinstein's proffered reasons in the linked article. There she makes many efforts to insulate herself from the predictable barrage of questions such as: Then why don't you support a California voucher program? She notes, for example, that the program is "experimental" and that "This proposal has the support of the president of the school board and thousands of District parents." And where members of both parties have long argued that education is a national issue requiring much federal support, she tells us that when it comes to vouchers, "I believe that education is a local issue ... "

But none of this is convincing, and she must know that. It certainly won't convince the teachers unions. And nothing she writes insulates from her from questions such as: So, Senator, why don't you propose a nationally-funded voucher program that would allow localities to make grants to low-income families stuck in failing school districts? That way, no local money would be taken from local public schools - and educational opportunities for our neediest children would increase.

In short, Senator Feinstein must know that she is opening a Pandora's box for herself and the teachers unions. Why does she do that?

I think she does it because she and the California Democratic Party see their most important constituencies - African-Americans and Hispanic Americans -are "trending away" on a raft of school vouchers. That is, she does it because she and the California Democratic Party ultimately have no choice. And in this California is merely once again in the lead of the nation as a whole.

The basic, lasting fissuring of the modern Democratic Party is not unprecedented. During the 1980's the issue of international trade came to a head: Democratic-alligned industrial unions wanted to block cheap imports - most emphatically of cheap cars and steel. But they failed, lost many of their jobs (especially the steelworkers) and were forced to agree to efficiency-enhancing reforms long demanded by management, all because other Democrats wanted cheap goods to buy. The issue continues to resonate, but the auto and steel workers unions, for example, have little clout - and have even had to seek bones from a Republican president in the form of the recent illegal duties on cheap steel, an action which even pits the steelworkers against the autoworkers.

Today, public sector unions feed so lustily on the public that their social cannibalism has forced them into direct conflict with other Democratic constituencies. Senator Feinstein's decision is a recognition by a well experienced political opportunist that the likely winner in the coming brawl is pretty obvious - the teachers unions are just going to have to learn to live with and love school vouchers. If not today, then tomorrow. But the Senator understands that tomorrow is approaching fast.

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