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Conservatives' Civil-Rights Agenda Puts Spotlight on Choice

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Washington--Conservatives meeting here last week to frame a "constructive" agenda on civil rights called for an emphasis on "empowering'' minorities to pursue economic advancement through approaches such as school choice.

But some scholars and political leaders attending the one-day forum disagreed on whether, in the short term, their movement should advocate that school-choice plans allow students to choose from among private as well as public schools.

By accepting the idea that choice will lead to significant improvements in education even if plans are limited to the public schools, conservatives may "discredit" the entire concept, warned the education analyst Myron Lieberman.

Programs that do not extend students' options beyond the public schools will not produce positive results, argued Mr. Lieberman, author of Privatization and Educational Choice.

But Representative Steve Bartlett, Republican of Texas, defended the tactical wisdom of initially limiting such plans to the public system. "Incremental changes are the only changes available," he said.

"If we are successful," he added, "we will end up with a full range of choices for parents."

Mr. Bartlett, who serves on the House Education and Labor Committee and is the ranking Republican on its select-education subcommittee, said he would introduce a bill this month designed to remove barriers to school choice in federal education law. As an example of such a barrier, he cited a provision that penalizes students eligible for Chapter 1 services who transfer to a school that does not have enough poor students to qualify for the program.

'Window of Opportunity'

Last week's conference was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a public-policy institute, and the Landmark Legal Foundation Center for Civil Rights, an organization established last year to pursue a conservative civil-rights agenda in the courts.

Organizers said the apparent willingness of the current U.S. Su8preme Court to reduce drastically the use of numerical quotas and other race-conscious remedies for discrimination had given conservatives a "window of opportunity" to press for alternatives to liberal positions on affirmative action and other civil-rights issues.

The theme of this conservative platform, most participants agreed, should be "individual dignity and empowerment" for minorities, with an emphasis on lifting regulatory barriers that conservatives say prevent minorities from pursuing economic advancement.

Conservatives have been "consistently negative" toward the liberal civil-rights agenda, but have generally failed to set forth constructive alternatives, said Clint Bollick, director of the Landmark Center.

"We cannot win a game without an offense," he said.

The liberal agenda "has failed miserably," Mr. Bollick contended, because it assumes that the progress of minorities must be made at the expense of the white majority, and because its "entitlement strategy fosters dependency."

Conservatives, he said, should counter with a strategy based on two assumptions: "Fundamental civil rights are not subject to compromise, and millions have never truly enjoyed equal opportunity."

Representative Bartlett, who chairs a "task force on empowerment" formed by House Republicans earlier this year, said an agenda promoting individual opportunity would help "counter the perception that we are just cheap Democrats."

"We conservatives are waking up in 1989 and realizing that we have had an empowerment agenda, we just didn't recognize it," Mr. Bartlett told the gathering.

"The idea is to empower people to have better lives," another participant, former Attorney General Edwin Meese 3rd, added in an interview. "This ought to be the continuing agenda," Mr. Meese said. "We have to build and maintain the momentum" started during the Reagan Administration.

Proposals Outlined

A five-point platform formulated by Mr. Bollick of the Landmark4Center appeared to have the support of most of those those attending the forum. It includes:

  • Proposing an "economic-liberty act" that would require all levels of government to ensure that their regulations provide access to entrepreneurial opportunities for all citizens. Currently, Mr. Bollick claimed, bureaucratic regulations and unnecessary licensing requirements impose their harshest burdens on minorities and the poor.
  • Redefining "affirmative action" to mean providing minorities and the poor with the tools necessary to participate in the mainstream, such as job skills, literacy training, day care, and transportation.
  • Promoting choice in education to give urban schoolchildren alternatives to substandard public schools.
  • Championing "emancipation from dependency" by offering incentives and opportunities for minorities and the poor to free themselves from programs such as welfare and public housing.
  • Defending the rights of crime victims and ensuring a right to be free from crime. "Minorities and the poor are far more likely to be victims of crime than other Americans," Mr. Bollick said.

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