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Harebrained Howard

Vermont governor (and Democratic presidential wannabe) Howard Dean is railing against school choice. But his argument is undermined by over 130 years of his own state's history.

8:00 AM, Aug 14, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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SOMETIMES, we pick the worst weeks to take our vacations here at The Weekly Standard. August is usually a slow month for politics, but last week presented, a target-rich environment for conservative journalists: There was Al Gore's op-ed screed in the New York Times, the leak of the Defense Policy Board's refreshingly honest assessment of Saudi Arabia's support of terrorism, and last but not least, the arrest of public television blowhard Bill Moyers for drunk driving.

Alas, we missed it all, and things have been less exciting this week. But here's a little something to tide you over:

Vermont governor Howard Dean has been touted by some, including the good folks at the New Republic, as a possible dark horse candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. He's all but announced his campaign, and yesterday he was "building support among the base," as they say, in Albany, New York, where he gave a speech to the state's largest teachers' union. According to the AP's account, Dean "got union members off their chairs with an impassioned critique of school vouchers."

"We have to be very, very careful not to destroy the public school system with harebrained ideas like vouchers," Dean said.

A funny little soundbite, that, and one that might come back to haunt the governor. For, as it turns out, the school system in Governor Dean's own state has been using the "harebrained idea" of vouchers to great effect--for 133 years, in fact. As Vermonter Libby Sternberg noted in the pages of The Weekly Standard in 1996, since 1869--that's right, 1869--Vermont has made use of what Dean would disdainfully call "vouchers." In many Vermont towns too small to operate their own public high schools, "high school students are 'tuitioned' by the town to the school of their parents' choice," Sternberg wrote. "Under this system, parents in tuitioning towns have sent their children to a variety of state-accredited public and private schools, including some religiously affiliated ones and some out-of-state, for many years. Towns pay tuition for each of their students, up to the average cost of schooling in the state." Apparently 133 years of this has yet to "destroy" the public school system of Vermont.

Yesterday Dean also trotted out the old canard that school choice worsens racial segregation in schools: ''Here's what a voucher system does. It puts the white folks here, the black folks there, the Hispanics there, the Jews over here, the Catholics there, the Protestants there, the rich people here, the poor people there, and the last people left behind are the special ed kids because nobody wants them,'' he said. ''We can't live in a society like that. This country is better than that.''

Actually, yes, the country is better than that--and without needing public schools to force integration. When left to their own devices, American parents actually choose to integrate schools more effectively that public schools do. Research by scholars such as the Manhattan Institute's Jay P. Greene (and many others) has found that school choice actually improves racial integration in schools, by allowing student attendance to transcend patterns of racial segregation in housing--unlike public schools. (For more details, see Greene's excellent summary of recent scholarship on school choice the Summer 2001 issue of The Public Interest.)

It looks like the only "harebrained" thing here is Howard Dean's argument against school choice.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.