Between The Lines

Between The Lines By David Lias Syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas is singing the praises of the U.S. Supreme Court these days.

Unfortunately, it's a tune that is not very uplifting, especially for a state with limited resources like South Dakota.

Why is Thomas all aglow? By a vote of 8-1, the Court refused to block Wisconsin's program that allows, as Thomas puts it, "poor children to attend the private or religious school of their parent's choice."

While the Court's decision was limited to Wisconsin, Thomas adds, "it is bound to encourage the school-choice movement now percolating in more than half the states. The Court's ruling comes not a moment too soon as fresh evidence of terrible and unrepairable schools continues to pile up."

There's nothing wrong with being for school-choice. There's nothing wrong with deciding to send your child to a private school, or seek another alternative, such as home-schooling.

There is something wrong, however, in espousing views on this subject that are as extreme as Thomas's.

Thomas conveniently neglects a few things when he claims that "unions and politicians . . . keep children imprisoned in a failed education system in order to preserve their power."

Thomas should know better. It was just a few weeks ago that he visited South Dakota, to speak at, you guessed it, a private school. In the short time that he was here, he should have learned that South Dakota is a state of few resources, that its residents have learned to make the most of those resources, but can ill afford to have any of them taken away.

That's why South Dakota's public schools may have such a difficult time singing Thomas's tune. Far from being an educational panacea, vouchers — whether they're in the form of opportunity scholarships, tuition tax credits, or school choice plans — drain resources directly from the 90 percent of children in public schools and benefit the relatively few children in private and parochial schools.

Thomas, and I suspect a minority of other people in the country, wants us to forget that school vouchers represent a radical way of funding public education. Rather than giving money directly to schools, the state would give each school-age student an educational voucher that would be accepted at any private or public school.

Voucher initiatives in California and some 17 other states have been repeatedly turned down by voters. In 1995, the Wisconsin Legislature allowed limited funding for private education. It was declared unconstitutional by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Thomas praises the U.S. Supreme Court's decision concerning Wisconsin because he claims that the approach of those who oppose school vouchers "doesn't put people first. It puts institutions first."

He is not the only conservative to make disturbing comments about school vouchers. Some voucher proponents claim that vouchers will improve public education through competition with private schools. But stop and think about the ramifications of creating such an atmosphere of competition between private and public schools.

Those who believe that competition will come about by giving private schools additional voucher money, along with the ability to pick and choose students, are forgetting a very important fact. The expense of providing for problem and special needs students would be left to public education. That would create an uneven playing field favoring private schools. How can public education be competitive in that situation?

Taking badly needed money from our public schools could mean the children remaining would be in public school systems that can't afford to repair dilapidated school buildings, hire qualified teachers, reduce class sizes, or purchase additional classroom computers.

All South Dakotans probably could agree, if they focused on the issue long enough, that all of our schools need improving. Let us add that public schools, a long-standing institution in South Dakota, deserve to be fixed, not gutted.

Vouchers would only make those repairs difficult, if not impossible, by taking taxpayer money away from public schools.

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