Political courage is fictional

President Jed Bartlet of West Wing backs school vouchers for low-income students, but real-life Democrats lack the courage, writes Clarence Page. On the TV show, as in real life, the mayor of Washington, D.C. and the president of the school board want a voucher experiment to help kids trapped in dreadful schools. Bartlet, a liberal Democrat, produces his young black assistant, a graduate of D.C. public schools. The assistant says he wishes he’d had a voucher to go to Catholic school. The fictional president decides to spend political capital to support vouchers.

The vignette made me wonder: Will we ever see a real-life Democratic president willing to go up against his party’s base, particularly the teachers’ unions, with the sort of statesmanlike independence that Bartlet did?

The episode’s writer, Lawrence O’Donnell, a former Moynihan aide, told Page he was “inspired by his earlier experiences as a substitute teacher in troubled schools in his hometown of Boston.”

“I saw kids academically dying before my eyes,” he said. “I found it too painful to actually look in their eyes and say, No, even if there is a better school around the corner, there are policy reasons why I cannot tell you to go there. Or help you to go there.”

Most black Americans support school vouchers, Page points out.

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  1. Why would a Democrat do what black Americans want him to do? There is no reason because 90% will vote for him reguardless of his actions.

  2. Bob Diethrich says:

    Personally I think if John Kerry were to support vouchers it would be a great wedge issue.

    As it took Nixon to go to China and Clinton to end welfare, it would be a great triangulation move. The Blacks and the brain dead hacks in the Teachers Unions would still vote Demcocratic and he may pick up a lot more of those middle class white people who are worried more about economy than terrorism.

  3. D. Cooper says:

    The underlying principle here is that the problem is the mold, not the plastic we’re pouring into it. When will people get honest? Go for it. Then what’s next?

    Oh … 5 million kids get vouchers … leave one school go to another … 200,000 teachers loose their jobs …. new schools need 200,000 new teachers …. Why does this seem like when I clean out my garage … reshuffling my stuff. Same stuff, in different places!!! Hey, knock yourself out!

  4. Vouchers won’t pay enough for private schools, won’t get most parents to put their child out of the local schools, and won’t change the motivation of most students, teachers, or parents. What will they do? Not much more than be a big distraction every election cycle.

    And I bet support for vouchers will dwindle away if we had to set up a “fair” and “equal” system for all students to get access to all schools. That would take away local control of school districts, allow suburban flight for urban students, and not really solve anything anyway.

    What’s really needed is an affordable private school system.

  5. D. Cooper says:

    Tell me what it is that the private schools are going to do differently and ‘allow’ the public schools to do the same. And, I suppose you’re going to hire better teachers … where are they going to come from and how are you going to pay for them? It’s not the mold stupid, it’s the plastic!!! (that was a ‘stupid’ in general)

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    Mr. Cooper,

    The private schools have an important edge that you seem to ignore: since parents must pay to have little Johnny there, if Johnny gets his ass thrown out for discipline, the parents have NO recourse. You think they will take more time and attention to make sure their little bastard – er, darling, does the work and shows the teacher proper respect.

    Too many parents forget just who is paying for what in the public system. They are all for enforcing their rights, and forget all about their responsibilities.

  7. Mad Scientist says:

    Oh yeah. In private schools, there is no such thing as tenure. You don’t live up to the standards, and you’re out.

    That’s why the private schools tend to have the highest concentration of good teachers.

  8. D. Cooper says:

    Like I said Mad ‘allow’ the public schools do the same!! I’m well aware of that edge … didn’t ignore it, just want that option. We actually are somewhat in agreement here … but … like you said because the parents are paying, they tend to keep a little better tabs on their ‘darlings’. The end result is they do better in school … no small wonder now is it. My point being that it’s not so much about better teachers …. just better ‘plastic’.

    And regarding tenure … it’s much easier living up to the standards when you actually have a higher percentage of children actually trying to obtain an education. Not for nothing, but highly motivated (not necessarily bright) students are about as easy to teach and challenge as putting on loafers.

  9. Independent George says:

    Cooper – I’m not sure I understand your plastic analogy. It seems like you’re saying the kids are too dumb to be taught? Please elaborate.

  10. D. Cooper says:

    IG … no, not too dumb to be taught, but the student that is being dropped off at the school doorstep today is quite different that the one dropped off 20 to 30 years ago. Todays MTV culture, the increased number of children from single parent families (not necessarily bad, but not as good as two), children from broken homes, non-English speaking children, and a greater percentage of children from homes where an education is not a priority. No student 25 years ago would have the ‘nerve’ to tell a teacher to “f— off”. We didn’t need to do a weapons check. And some of the outfits the girls get out of the house with are nothing short of outrageous. I could go on, but I think you get the point. IG … it ain’t the same plastic going into the mold. These kids come with so much baggage, some schools need a bell hop at the front door (just after the metal detector).

  11. jeff wright says:

    D. Cooper: Your last post is right on the mark. However, consider the public school establishment. Rather than holding the line against the barbarians, the schools joined them. They became “understanding,” they became mommy and daddy, they became social workers. They lost sight of who and what they are supposed to be. Now they have no identity. This is why vouchers are the only answer for parents who genuinely want their kids to grow up to be decent citizens.

    Is it any wonder that a lot of people have totally lost faith in the public schools and view them with some contempt?

  12. Walter Wallis says:

    I am confident that Kerry supports vouchers in one of his incarnations.

  13. D. Cooper says:

    Jeff …. ‘they’ is big, who is ‘they’ …. believe me ‘they’ is not the teacher … I know; we fought/fight this battle every day, and then have to listen to the administration, the school board, and the parents. Vouchers are not the ‘answer’, if you think so you’re living in la-la land. The advantage that private schools have now is in part due to the fact that the parents are paying for it. They are holder their children to a higher standard because they actually have higher standards. When it’s paid for by ‘vouchers’, it’ll be no different, because it dosen’t negate the underlying root cause. We are fighting a ‘culture’ war. Why not expend that energy into ‘allowing’ public schools do their job … teaching. Where do you propose we put this ‘element’ of lost children with enough baggage to choke a horse?
    I would assume that everyone would be allowed to use a voucher … then what … the ones who can afford more go to a ‘better’ private school. Same thing … you’ve reshuffled the stuff in the garage … same stuff, just in different places.
    How’s this, I’m a public school conservative teacher who does not believe in vouchers! The problem is not going to be solved by vouchers. It’s much bigger than that.

  14. D. Cooper,

    It isn’t just reshuffling. I can understand why you might think so, but I think you protest a bit too much. I say it’s all about giving families choices they never had before. It is about not telling poor and minority parents that “Sorry, we can’t do more for you”. If public schools can’t or won’t separate the kids who want to work from those that don’t, then let the private schools do it. I don’t expect public schools to solve all of our social problems and I surely don’t want them to try at the expense of those who really want to learn and improve themselves. Individual opportunity is what is important here – not group or collective opportunity.

    This isn’t just reshuffling because the better teachers will shift to private schools to work with students who want to work. The goal is to give poor and minority students an opportunity they never had before. We need to put their future in their own hands. To say that these kids will then just end up going to bad private schools is a very big assumption. Choice and competition don’t matter? I would like to hear you tell poor inner-city parents that their child has to stay in their own lousy public school because the private school they could get into isn’t any better than the public school.

    Then where do we put the other children that don’t want to work? Well, perhaps the public schools can learn to focus strictly on being good baggage handlers and try to get these kids to move up to a better private school education. It’s their choice.

  15. D. Cooper says:

    Steve… “I don’t expect public schools to solve all of our social problems and I surely don’t want them to try at the expense of those who really want to learn and improve themselves.” ….Here we agree and this the burden we’ve been saddled with. Many of the so called ‘poor’ teachers are merely victims of this burden … wanting to teach but not having the skills to also solve the ills of ‘society’.

    And….”This isn’t just reshuffling because the better teachers will shift to private schools to work with students who want to work.” … some problems here … are there enough of the ‘better’ teachers to staff this new world order?….how are you going to pay for these teachers?….how are you going to identify them? ….and your contemptuous comment regarding the ‘rest’ of the dregs to become baggage handlers is a little over the top. I’ll just rest know that it’s not going to happen, and if it did it wouldn’t work because if refuses to address the problem.

    I would like to have you tell the poor inner school parent that the private school they’ve sent their child to isn’t doing a better job …. because their child is being disruptive, and doesn’t do his/her homework, and that the mother didn’t show up for the last teacher conference meeting and I don’t want to go into the reasons why they couldn’t make it. Save your time and money and let the public schools purge the malcontents … unruly, unwilling, whatever … there’s fewer of them but their impact is enormous.

    Vouchers will work on a very very limited basis to help very very few children ….. it’s going nowhere. Let the public schools teach and set up baggage centers for the rest so they’re not out roaming our streets. Call them trade schools, bad boy/girl centers, whatever you want. Give them help and second chances but don’t let them take away another student’s right to learn. Handling these ‘problems’ are where public schools fail, vouchers are however not the answer. You’ve got 5% of the school population ruining it for the others and you’re going to relocate the 95% who want to learn. The cooperation you’re looking for to implement vouchers is no more difficult to get than the cooperation needed to remove the 5%!! Neither is easy, but relocating 5% makes more sense than relocating 95%.

  16. “Neither is easy, but relocating 5% makes more sense than relocating 95%.”

    I would agree, but I don’t believe for one minute that it is just 5 percent. Also, I am not talking about only those kids who actively disrupt class. By the way, why can’t the schools remove them from the school? Solve this problem and you are part way there. But, that is not the only problem. I mentioned that you have to provide opportunities to individuals, not just provide a non-disruptive school environment. There are still those who don’t even try. That is a disruption in itself. I think it is important to give poor and minority kids access to the best education and the same choices as affluent parents.

    As I said before: If public schools can’t or won’t separate the kids who want to work from those that don’t, then let the private schools do it. You say that it is better to let the public schools do this? Go ahead, but I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, I will advocate choice and vouchers.

  17. D. Cooper says:

    Steve … “By the way, why can’t the schools remove them from the school?” .. send that question to the ACLU … and the rest of the liberals!! Choice and vouchers is nothing more than running away from the problem and all that’ll happen is a relocation of the problem. And, having taught for over 30 years, 5% is a fair estimate, and your complaint about children not trying is a motivational problem that is not going to be solved by vouchers. Even kids who do try need to be motivated and challenged, and by removing disruptive students we’ll have gone a long ways towards giving teachers the chance to teach, motivate and challenge. Do you want to separate out those who don’t try enough as well, would that include slower paced learners as well slowing down your ‘bright’ child…just how elitist do you want this to be. Like I said, you can argue until you’re blue in the face, but it ‘ain’t’ happening!!

    And, as far as the public schools doing it, you ‘people’ who are upset with the status quo who want to abandon the public schools rather than putting those efforts in to solving the problem posed by the 5% ‘ers. How about fighting fire with fire … go to the ACLU and ask them to file a law suit claiming that your son/daughter is being denied the right to an education by some ‘bonehead’ disruptive snot-nosed bully/brat!!! Who knows, they defended Ollie and Rush!!!

  18. Fix the 5 percent problem and everything will be fine? I still don’t buy your arguments. And you blame “you ‘people'” for not solving the problem? I think you give us parents much more power than we have. Why don’t the teachers file a class action suit. If teachers and schools can’t solve this 5 percent problem then how do you expect the average parent to do so? You’re passing the buck.

    I went to public schools and have always been a supporter of public schools. But, I can tell you that parents have little control over anything. The only real control some parents have is to vote with their feet by sending their kids to private schools. This choice has more to do with the low expectations of the public schools than the “5 percent problem. You think that solving the 5 percent problem will improve standards and expectations substantially. I don’t.

    You also seem to advocate a “full inclusion” model of teaching, which is your philosophical choice, but then you label all who oppose this model as elitist. So, are you going to tell poor and minority families that they can’t go to a better school because that would be elitist? You want us parents to solve the 5 percent problem, but we better not tamper with your ideological approach to teaching. Schools only seem to want parents to help when it supports their agenda and ideology.

  19. D. Cooper says:

    Parents are responsible for both the 5% and the 95%, the schools are not equiped to fight a ‘culture’ war. And BTW, our ‘agenda’ is teaching children!! Talk about passing the buck …. parents and society in general have been passing the buck and blaming the schools for too long now. When little(make that big) Johnny comes to school with some filth on a t-shirt and is sent home only to return with his lawyer the next day claiming we’re depriving him of his free speech, maybe you could bring your lawyer and do your thing.

    And by whatever your definition of ‘full inclusion’ is I’d agree to call those opposed to that elitists… what would you call them … not inclusionists I hope?? What I really believe is the motive here is not to help the poor and minority students, but to promote a nice little niche for a few. What is this ‘private’ school going to do with all those poor and minority students who can’t keep up, don’t have enough support at home to compete, who from birth were deprived of bed time story readings and all else that goes with developing a young mind. You and yours will be off to another private school … one that might have an acedemic requirement so those slow learners don’t get in the way.

    And, well no kidding….teachers wanting support from parents for their agenda. The parents who support that agenda are the ones who value an education and demand it of their children. When did you last for someones help who didn’t agree with what you were doing. Now wouldn’t that be silly.


  1. President Bartlet Supports Vouchers

    It’s always good to see political courage among Democrats, even if they are fictional. Joanne Jacobs (one of the finer edubloggers) reports:President Jed Bartlet of West Wing backs school vouchers for low-income students, but real-life Democrats lack t…