Marvin Olasky | November 1, 2001

Why School Choice Is Compassionate

Marvin Olasky

[The following remarks were delivered October 23 at an OCPA dinner in Tulsa.]

I'm glad to be here, north of the Red River. I saw yesterday that Oklahoma is #1 in the BCS ratings to play for the national championship and Texas is #6. We're all cheering for Oklahoma to beat Nebraska, and for UCLA, Miami, and Virginia Tech to lose cominging down the stretch, because we want a rematch.

I do thank all of you for coming. I'm glad you're thinking about school choice questions, and I want you to know that this talk today represents a return to message for me.

I've written some columns since September 11 and given speeches in North Carolina, California, and Florida, but I didn't talk about compassionate conservatism or educational questions. I used some research I've done over the past several years and talked some about Islam and terrorism, thinking that domestic policy questions about education and compassion were irrelevant, given the current crisis. But I've changed my mind.

I now believe that fighting poverty and developing better schools is more important than ever. I'd even go so far as to say that if we are not only to beat bin Laden but keep thousands of new bin Ladens from emerging, taking care of some of our social problems is crucial.

Let me explain why, starting with a bit of history. During the first three centuries of American history, disasters regularly led to national self-examination. People talked about sin and asked whether Americans were at least living in part by biblical principles.

In the 20th century a secularized version of the idea became common, often with use of a sentence from the writings of a French visitor to this country during the 1830s. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Pat Buchanan all presented this purported quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: "America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt used that same line on September 14.

De Tocqueville never wrote those words. I was a speechwriter 20 years ago and researched old Alexis very closely. The message of greatness following goodness is nevertheless true. In this respect we can learn from the cold war, or what we now might want to call Cold War I, since we are now in Cold War II (and cold wars include hot conflicts).

Secretary of State Dean Acheson noted in 1947 that "suspicion and resentment" over the treatment of poor minorities in America hurt the nation internationally. John F. Kennedy argued that Jim Crow in the South had to be defeated for Communism to be defeated in Africa. Others noted that the world was watching our "city on a hill" to see whether we walked the talk.

Evil is now being attacked by a lot of goodness. Americans have contributed over a billion dollars to help those who have already suffered from terrorist attacks and those who will suffer. One way the United States can display goodness to other countries is through offering food to refugees, as President Bush is wisely having us do in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and his hardcore followers will hate America regardless of what we do. But millions of Muslims around the world are watching what we do. For them America will be great only if she is good.

Two Americas

The hardcore anti-American Wahhabi Muslims identify America with hardcore pornography, with caring for our own pleasure so much that we will abort our children, with having schools that do not teach right from wrong, unless it's learning how to use the right condom. Millions of Muslims believe that. What they don't understand is that there are two Americas. The America of moral anarchy does exist. But alongside it exists an America of incredible compassion, an America with people willing to sacrifice so as to provide for widows, orphans, the aged and the disabled.

Some of you may have heard at the time or on tape a speech that President John F. Kennedy gave 40 years ago, at a time when the focus of the Cold War was on Berlin. He declared, "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the Free World and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin."

I met last week parents from Clio, Michigan who have devoted big chunks of their lives to the care of their 29-year-old son with cerebral palsy. They are not only caring for him but are building a big house next to their home where he and seven other young adults with cerebral palsy will live. To those from the Muslim world who identify all Americans with the bad parts of Hollywood, I say, "Let them come to Clio, Michigan."

One of my favorite families is the Clooneys of Maryland. They have adopted at least seven children with severe disabilities. To those from the Muslim world who think Americans don't care about the least among us, I say, "Let them come to the Clooney home in Maryland."

Let me mention quickly one organization in Detroit, Cornerstone Schools. It's a collection of four private schools that describe themselves as "Christ-centered" and are celebrating their tenth anniversary. The Wall Street Journal on October 12 included a column about the schools, and how they are backed by General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, TRW, Comerica, Nascar, and others. Kmart has just announced that it will sponsor an entire sixth grade.

And sponsorship doesn't mean just money. Businessmen mentor students, helping them and gaining satisfaction from making a huge difference in one life. They check to make sure the school is coming through. And it has: Cornerstone has quadrupled in size during the past ten years, and its students, from very poor backgrounds, each year do better than the national average on achievement tests. To those from the Muslim world who say that capitalism is evil, and those from around the United States who say that companies just keep pumping money into failed school systems instead of working to create new systems, I say, "Let them come to Detroit."

I've been tracking scholarship-awarding organizations that try to give parents the opportunity to choose better schools for their children. Children's Education Opportunity Foundation (CEO America) raises money every year for over 13,000 low-income students to escape poor schools; 44,000 students are on their waiting lists. Local funds in New York, Milwaukee, and Washington help 8,000 students and have long waiting lists. To those from the Muslim world who read about an uncaring America, and those in this country who oppose school choice, I say: let them visit those families that now have new educational hope.

You may have seen Brandon Dutcher's article earlier this month in The Daily Oklahoman. Brandon noted that only three percent of Oklahoma's black fourth-graders are proficient in math, and only nine percent of Hispanics and 20 percent of whites. Reading scores are also shocking. But the Oklahoma Scholarship Fund is giving kids a chance for a better education, and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is pushing for a tax credit for contributing to scholarship funds that would really open things up. And to those who think that the words "selfish" and "American" inevitably go together, I say: let them come to Oklahoma.

An Act of War

Our attention since September 11 has of course been concentrated on our war against terrorism, but let me mention an act of war reported in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, titled A Nation at Risk.

That broad-based commission, nearly two decades ago, warned that "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves."

Only an unfriendly power, we might think, would force us to pump billions of dollars into schools that fail their students, without forcing those schools to change.

Only an unfriendly power, we might think, would force us to ignore the lesson we have taught to much of the world "that competition produces better products" and instead rely for education on a socialist model that says trust the bureaucracy.

Only an unfriendly power, we might think, would pass around propaganda so often that we tend to regard it as fact. I believe we are facing several unfriendly powers: a powerful ideology that favors secular uniformity above religious diversity, a powerful teachers union headed by officials who of course want to hold onto their influence and perks, and a powerful propaganda machine that does not tell the truth.

For example, we hear that an emphasis on school competition and school choice will lead to the social, racial, and economic stratification of students, but it's actually public schools that are the most segregated schools in America. That's because districts are drawn geographically and socioeconomic factors determine where people live. Religious schools tend to be racially, economically and socially diversified.

We hear that private schools are unaccountable to the public, but it's public schools that lack real accountability, because they do not face the element that forces accountability: competition. Schools that answer to parents, not administrators and politicians, have proven to be the most accountable.

We hear that parents will make bad decisions for their children. That sometimes does occur, but I'd rather bet on parents who know their children well than administrators who do not. We hear that helping some kids to move from bad public to good private schools will just leave the rest behind in those bad schools, but that doesn't take into account how organizations are forced to improve when they face competition.

We hear that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state, but that's just not so. The First Amendment says that Congress shall not establish religion, and establish means "give preference to." The First Amendment did not emerge in an historical vacuum; it came because the British before the Revolutionary War a decade before had worked hard to establish the Church of England "Anglicanism" as the official religion of the colonies. Officials had thrust whips down the throats of Baptist preachers. Men like James Madison heard of that and said, never again.

Now we're hearing one more thing, that because of our war on terrorism we should drop all discussion of school choice, because it could be divisive. Similar statements have been made about compassionate conservatism generally, or the prolife movement in particular. But we must not, because America is great only as she is good. (De Tocqueville said that, right?) Moderate Muslims will respect the greatness of this country only as its goodness becomes evident.

Pulling For School Choice

I commend the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs for the way it is showing what Oklahomans are doing and can do. Often we don't know what others are doing until a group like OCPA throws light on them. You may have heard the story about a man who drove his car into a ditch in a desolated area. A local rancher came to help with his big strong horse named Buddy. He hitched Buddy up to the car and yelled, "Pull, Nellie, pull!" Buddy didn't move. Then the rancher hollered, "Pull, Buster, pull!" Buddy didn't respond. Once more the rancher commanded, "Pull, Pokey, pull!" Nothing. Then the rancher nonchalantly said, "Pull, Buddy, pull!" The horse easily dragged the car out of the ditch. The motorist was thankful and curious. He asked the rancher why he called his horse by the wrong name three times. The rancher said, "Oh, Buddy is blind and if he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn't even try!"

I hope all of you will pull for school choice, with the realization that real horses, not imaginary ones, are also pulling. There's a lot of pulling to do. Here's a bit of history that few people know: before the government in this country took control of education and set up rules for compulsory schooling, literacy in most states was higher than it is now. Literacy in the north was between 91 and 97 percent in the 1830s. There were problems in the south: literacy was about 80 percent among whites and very low, of course, among blacks.

Ironically, it was in Massachusetts, probably the state with the most literate population, that the drive for government to take over education became most intense. The perfect, in the mind of Horace Mann, was the enemy of the good, a variety of mostly-privately-funded but publicly-accessible community schools.

Government-run education flourished in the late 19th century partly because of anti-Catholicism. Schools were seen as Protestant tools for denigrating immigrant values and lifestyles. And schools certainly did serve as a way to Americanize the children of immigrants. That was before they became prey to the trendy educational doctrines of recent years that in elementary school often leave them deficient in reading and math, and the trendy doctrines of high school that often teach kids to despise their birthright.

Voting for school choice by itself is not compassionate. Com-passion means "with suffering," so it's about personal help to those in need, not just voting or writing a check. But school choice helps those who do give their own lives for children at risk of physical or intellectual death. Ask the single moms who are scrubbing floors at night so they can get their children into decent schools if school choice is compassionate. Ask the children who are otherwise trapped in bureaucratic programs that do not give them the help they need.

I've seen some of this up close during the past couple of months. I have to confess that I'm not a particularly hospitable person. My perfect form of hospitality came in August when my wife and I were away and a college minister who we know and trust asked if a dozen members of a visiting church youth group could use our house overnight, under careful supervision. That was great I could be hospitable and never see the visitors.

Once in a while, though, when I have no choice, I wander into some compassionate activity, as I have recently with a 9-year-old and a 6- year-old. They are the children of parents who have acted very irresponsibly. The six-year-old knows three types of cigarettes: cigarettes, cigars, and pot. The nine-year-old was always told by his mom, "You're the man of the family." He feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.

I should not and will not blame public schools for the fact that the 9-year-old, in the third grade, can hardly read. His home life has been a mess. But I do blame a public school system for giving him a 96 in reading last year, even though he can't read. During the first two weeks of school this fall he went to the school library with his third grade class and picked out books he can't read so the other kids would not make fun of him. In our home, we saw him sobbing over one of those books, saying over and over again, "I can't read."

The public school system doesn't treat him harshly. He is treated kindly, like a pet but he isn't being taught to read. The schools have a standard procedure. He needs to learn social studies. He needs Spanish. He needs to play the recorder.

All of these are good things in a non-emergency situation. They help to make for a well-rounded child. But this child is facing an emergency: if he can't learn how to read, he won't be able to do much of anything. And my wife and I, two well-educated, middle class people, are unable to get the school system to change its ways so as to declare a state of emergency for him and give him some intensive training in reading throughout the day.

The school has the money to do that, with a per-child cost of $10,000 or so. It just doesn't have the flexibility. You can bet that if my wife and I controlled the $20,000 per year the school gets for the two children, school officials would be responsive. We now have tutors coming after school to teach the 9-year-old to read. But why should he have to go to school for seven hours and not learn what is obviously essential? If the public school really felt the heat through competition from other schools, if it did not have a guaranteed income, if it was not on a school welfare system that does not require hard striving, you can bet that it would be flexible.

We received the children's report cards recently. The 9-year-old received B's in reading and writing. Talk about grade inflation. I wonder what the C students can do. The 6-year-old in the first grade received good grades in everything except reading and writing, where he received a #1 for "Needs improvement." Well, we all need improvement. Both children have learned about the rain forest. They need to learn to read.

The good news is that hundreds of private and religious schools have sprung up that are doing the job. Pundits are surprised that those schools still exist, let alone that they represent education's growth area. There's a story about a man who lay dying in his bed. He suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength. With great effort he forced himself down the stairs and gazed into the kitchen. Spread out upon platters on the kitchen table were hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies. Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. His parched lips parted; the wondrous taste of the cookie was already in his mouth, seemingly bringing him back. The aged and withered hand shakingly made its way to a cookie at the edge of the table, when it was suddenly smacked with a spatula by his wife. "Stay out of those," she said, "they're for the funeral."

We've had many funerals over the years for private and religious schools, but they are stronger than ever. Some folks on the right are planning a funeral for the public school system, but I don't think that will happen either. Public and private schools can and will coexist for a long time, and that's fine as long as parents have the maximum amount of choice.

Punching the Alligator

I'm not saying that great public schools don't exist: they do, and maybe some of your children go to them. But I've been in lots of inner cities over the past 10 years and met lots of 20-year-olds with high school diplomas who can't read and can't do basic math. When I was in Florida last week, I read a story of a man who saw his child being pulled away by an alligator. He ran up and started punching and hammering at the alligator, and saved his child's life. I believe I would do that if my own child's life were in danger. Would I do that for someone else's child? I don't know, but I hope so. Will you do that for kids who have no choice of schools and are being dragged down? I hope so.

Here's what President Bush said on October 11, at the one-month memorial for those who died: "Before September 11th, my administration was planning an initiative called Communities of Character. It was designed to help parents develop good character in our children, and to strengthen a spirit of citizenship and service in our communities. The acts of September 11th have prompted that initiative to occur on its own, in ways far greater than I could have ever imagined." The initiative did occur on its own. The American people have shown character by volunteering to help those hit hard by the disaster. Americans have also shown character by demanding not that the US appease murderers but that we go after them, to keep them from murdering again. And Americans are showing character by going on about our business, by looking to the future, in the faith that there will be a future.

Building Tomorrowland

That faith is vital, and we should not take it for granted. Two weeks ago I gave a speech at a university in Los Angeles and took my 11-year-old son to Disneyland. Walt Disney built that park in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Cold War was at its height and the likelihood of nuclear disaster seemed high. But he had faith that God would let America survive, and he built not only sections about the past like Frontierland and Adventureland, but a section called Tomorrowland.

Pushing for school choice is another faith-based initiative. Now that we are in a new cold war that, like the first, could turn hot at any time, some people might rationally say that this is the time to eat, drink, and be merry. Some people could be overcome by fears of biological warfare or other attacks that would make the death of 6,000 a month ago seem like a mere skirmish. But I applaud your commitment to the idea that we can work hard and change things to build real Tomorrowlands.

What can we do to give citizens the tools for building Tomorrowlands? Citizens of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota right now have a terrific opportunity. Arizona residents can receive a tax credit of up to $500 for donating to nonprofit groups that distribute private scholarships to needy students. The Arizona scholarship credit in its four years of existence has raised more than $32 million and funded more than 19,000 scholarships. In Pennsylvania, as many as 10,000 students will soon have a chance at a better education.

Let me ask all of you a question: How many of you know of or have heard of some school where $500 buys more educational accomplishment than it does in the public school system? If so, our goal should be to help such schools grow. We should have a tax credit for educational contributions in Oklahoma and in Texas. We should all be pushing for a state tax credit for all kinds of contributions to K-12 scholarship organizations from all kinds of individuals and businesses.

Some big-government folks are crowing about the events of September 11 and thereafter proving that small-government conservatives are wrong. They misunderstand what this debate is all about. It's not small government vs. big government; it's constitutional government vs. a government of whim.

Greater federal expenditures for defense are constitutional; the constitutional mandate is for the federal government to "provide for the common defense." But look at the next clause in the preamble to the Constitution: "promote the general welfare."

"Providing" is doing it yourself, "promoting" is helping others to do it. "Promoting" is urging volunteers to come forward. "Promoting" is not getting in the way of compassionate conservative impulses that have shown their effectiveness. Promoting is trying to help those initiatives to flourish.

Brandon Dutcher wrote in The Daily Oklahoman, "It is immoral to keep kids trapped in schools where they aren't learning to read or compute. We need to offer them a way out." That's exactly right. As we fight a war internationally against something that ruins lives and destroys dreams, we need to do the same domestically. School choice is the compassionate choice for kids now in the grips of failing schools. I hope and pray that all of us will fight for these children, even if we have to hammer on an alligator.

May God bless these children, and may God bless America.

Marvin Olasky is the editor of World, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and a professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

Marvin Olasky

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