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Christian Coalition Offers Tips on Promoting Vouchers

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Washington

Supporters of government vouchers that would allow students to attend schools of their choice got some practical tips here at the Christian Coalition's annual "Road to Victory" conference.

Many of the 1.6 million members of the conservative grass-roots coalition, founded in 1989 by the Rev. Pat Robertson, are sharply critical of public education.

The burgeoning political power of the organization, which is widely credited with helping deliver Congress into Republican hands last year, has made it a favorite among GOP leaders.

The Sept. 8-9 gathering drew House Speaker Newt Gingrich and seven of the nine Republican presidential candidates.

At a workshop session called "School Choice--The Next Victory," speakers outlined legal and political strategies for creating voucher systems at the state and federal levels. Such systems would allow students to use the vouchers to attend religiously affiliated schools.

Critics of voucher programs say that using government money for tuition at religious schools violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

"The separation of church and state is an absolutely specious argument," asserted U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, a California Republican who is among the sponsors of a bill that would create a federal voucher program for low-income students.

"It's up to you," he told the audience, "to counter the argument that we belong to the right-wing extremist movement."

Allan Parker, the president of the Texas Justice Foundation, distributed a brief analysis of case law involving vouchers and the Constitution, arguing that voucher plans will pass constitutional muster.

He also passed out a tip sheet rebutting another argument against vouchers, often made by conservatives: that by receiving tax money, private schools will open themselves to excessive government regulation.

Mr. Parker, whose San Antonio-based nonprofit foundation advocates limited government, said it was "the American way" to use free-market forces to improve schools.

"Whenever you hear objections to choice, think of how the market would respond, and you'll have the answer," he said. "We'll have bad schools copying good schools, or they'll go out of business."

The real action, he said, is at the state level, where constitutions vary widely.

"We will fight this state by state," he vowed. "I think we will win this battle. The system is shaking in its boots."

But Stan Jordan, a member of the Duval County, Fla., school board, advised moderation. Voucher legislation should be written "so it does not bankrupt the school district," he said. "If you do not structure the legislation so that it gives some compensation to the school district for every student who leaves, you will not succeed."

Only students who were enrolled in public schools during the previous school year should be eligible for vouchers, he said, and voucher programs should be phased in one grade at a time.

"It's dirty and it's nasty and it's tough," Mr. Jordan said of the legislative fights that such bills provoke. "We're dealing with bureaucracy and unionism. But you can make this idea palatable and get it through on a limited basis."

During the question period, a member of the audience claimed that "liberal forces" had killed Pennsylvania's voucher bill earlier this year by convincing conservative Republicans that vouchers would bring "inner-city values" to their school systems.

But Mr. Parker responded that such a program would instead provide good schools in students' home neighborhoods and create a "values transformation" for city students.

Another participant asked how to write legislation that would allow her private, church-affiliated school to accept only students from the congregation.

Mr. Jordan said such a bill would have little chance of success. "That's the best way to kill it," he said. "I would hope that churches would accept who comes."

Another session on what some coalition members call the "dumbing down" of the elementary school curriculum evolved into a discussion of what conservatives believe is wrong with American schools.

"There is general bureaucratic contempt for what I call knowledge and the right answer," said Bruno V. Manno, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served in the U.S. Department of Education under Presidents Reagan and Bush.

As a remedy, Mr. Manno called for high standards, testing, and accountability.

Robert Holland, the editor of the opinion page at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, charged that schools neglect educational basics in favor of "instilling the correct sociopolitical attitudes in children."

Mr. Holland drew applause and laughter as he recited a list of jargon he said was popular with educators: "real life," "relevant," "child-centered," "heterogeneous," and "invented spelling." But the term that drew the most jeers was "multiple intelligences," a theory of human intelligence that has led schools to try to identify and encourage student abilities beyond those measured with paper-and-pencil tests.

One of the most strident speakers was Ezola Foster, a teacher at Bell High School in the Los Angeles school district. She charged that schools have "gone from being academic learning centers to socialist training camps."

"Unsuspecting, innocent children are being used by liberal, left-wing teachers," she said. As examples, she cited schools in her district that support homosexual students, counsel grief-stricken children, and involve students in writing gun-control legislation.

Ms. Foster called for the elimination of the U.S. Education Department and the repeal of federal education laws that she blamed for a decline in reading skills.

Because schools are now teaching people how to get on the welfare rolls, she claimed, the movement to link schools and social-service agencies also should be stopped.

--Ann Bradley

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