School voucher debate airs on `Firing Line'

Can the marketplace deliver a better type of schooling for America's children than the public system? Would a little competition from the private sector -- partly underwritten by government money given to parents in the form of school ``vouchers'' -- force public schools to improve? William F. Buckley Jr. thinks it would. So does Nobel Prize-winning free-marketeer Milton Friedman. That's not surprising. What is occasionally surprising, though, is what happens when Mr. Buckley, Mr. Friedman, and Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell debate two of the best minds in public school leadership in the country -- Albert Shanker and William Honig, president of the American Federation of Teachers and chief state school officer of California, respectively.

The first half of that debate aired last weekend on Buckley's popular ``Firing Line'' program on PBS, when the two sides made formal statements detailing their positions. Buckley began by stating that the tide of ``privatization'' and democratic capitalism sweeping through the free world (Britain and France, primarily) is proving to be a better delivery system for high-quality services than public systems. Why not education? he asks.

Mr. Shanker opened by countering that there are exceptions to the rules of private enterprise, and public services such as the postal system and fire departments -- but far more important, schools -- go beyond the dictates of the marketplace.

The formal back and forth -- witty and clever, as expected -- touched on how issues of race, religion, academic competence, and the social health of America relate to public and private schooling. That was Round 1. Round 2 airs this weekend on PBS, where both sides ``have it out'' at the podium in a freestyle debate.

California's Mr. Honig, tall and tanned, argues eloquently that the public system is in the midst of major reform and that to ``change horses'' in midstream would be ``difficult, costly, and risky.'' The ineluctable Buckley dresses down Honig for giving what Buckley says is a shallow reading of the Founding Fathers' intentions with regard to the separation of church and state. Honig maintains that government money cannot be spent to support private groups, whether they be Roman Catholic, Protestant, ``or run by LaRouche or Farrakhan.''

But again, how can Honig support the GI Bill -- money for the college of one's choice -- and not support vouchers? Buckley wonders.

Those interested in education issues will find this second half of the debate a challenge.

Though supported ardently by neoconservatives, and most parochial and private Christian school lobbies, the voucher plan will probably not pass Congress in the near future. But it may pass, say figures like Honig, if the public schools do not improve in the next 10 years.

Other points of debate:

Is it the job of public schools to transmit democratic or cultural values?

Do disadvantaged or minority children actually have a better chance for schooling in a private setting?

What about more federal regulations in private schools?

The historic good of public schools vs. the potential good of private ones. (Some may find Shanker's final statement here worth the whole show.)

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