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Education’s Evil Empire

Friday, January 1, 1999

Over the next two years, Congress will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a $13 billion federal program that encompasses most federal legislation affecting K-12 education. At the heart of ESEA is the infamous Title I program, Aid to the Poor. This $8 billion annual disaster has spent over $100 billion since its inception in 1965. Its catastrophic result: 57 percent of central-city fourth graders in public schools cannot read.

Education has historically and rightfully been a state and local responsibility in the United States. Title I reauthorization offers an excellent opportunity to transfer resources and responsibility back to states, and to show how vouchers and other choice models would improve education for poor children compared with current federal aid. Reauthorization also gives federal legislators an extraordinary opportunity to focus national public attention on the failures of inner-city education. Indeed, congressional hearings and surrounding media events could be modeled on Ronald Reagan’s ideological offensive against the Kremlin.

Reagan pursued successful military, economic, and political strategies against the Kremlin. But perhaps his most important contribution to Cold War victory was his ideological strategy to delegitimate Communism—to make Soviet leaders so embarrassed, so ashamed of themselves, that they were no longer willing to kill to protect their own power. This is why the "Evil Empire" speech was so significant: its biggest impact was on Kremlin leaders who knew in their hearts that Reagan was right. A daily barrage of public diplomacy through Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and other avenues drove the message home.

By the mid-1980s top Soviet officials were beginning to make public apologies for the crimes of their regime. In 1987 Reagan asked Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. In 1988 he took his message of freedom to the very bosom of the enemy—under Lenin’s statue at Moscow State University. Under Reagan’s withering moral pressure, the nomenklatura lost so much confidence in itself that in just a few years it voluntarily gave up power and the wall came tumbling down.

The public education establishment today is where the Soviet Union was in 1987. It looks all powerful. It rules by fear and intimidation. But it is ideologically a house of cards that will collapse if conservatives go on a sustained moral offensive and highlight its failure to teach basic skills to poor children. In so doing, we can deny defenders of the education monopoly all moral legitimacy—in their own minds! Already, the education establishment is starting to confess its crimes. The most dramatic example was the June 1998 Wall Street Journal article by Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teachers College, saying maybe we should try choice for the poorest urban students.

Like the Soviet Union in 1987, the education establishment looks all powerful. But it is ideologically a house of cards.

We can accelerate the momentum by making common cause with education’s dissidents. Black America, the very community the monopolists purport to represent, is beginning to rise up in righteous anger against the failure of public schools. Rev. Floyd H. Flake, the former Democratic congressman, is emerging as the Solzhenitsyn of American education, the prophetic voice willing to decry inner-city schools as the gulags they’ve become.

Reagan offered his hand of friendship to the Russian people even as he denounced the evils of Communism. He made it clear that he was pro-freedom, not anti-Russian. So, too, it is important for conservatives to demonstrate that we are friends of teachers and principals, friends of public schools. It is precisely because we care about public schools so deeply that we denounce the "evil empire" of monopoly and bureaucracy and low standards and expectations.

As we call for vouchers, we should make it clear that they are not the cure-all for the crisis in education. In order for there to be genuine choice and competition, public schools must also be reformed. They must be given the combination of freedom and accountability that makes private and charter schools so effective. Education reform benefits all schools: public, private, and parochial.

The education establishment is fighting with all its might both choice and competition and the reforms that would save public schools. But deep in their heart they know they are wrong. They know they are failing America’s children, especially our poor children. Now is the time to nourish those secret self-doubts and bring them into the open. Just as Reagan asked Gorbachev, if he cared about openness, to tear down the wall, so we can ask the education establishment, if it cares about children, to allow schools to excel.

Ronald Reagan predicted in 1982 that Marxism-Leninism would soon be consigned to the ash heap of history. The same prediction can be made today of the evil empire of American education.