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Town Square

Sunday, September 1, 1996

Table of Contents
Groups To Watch
What Works
Cautionary Tales


Targeting Teen Pregnancy

In his 1995 State of the Union address, Bill Clinton challenged parents and leaders "from all over the country . . . [to] join together in a national campaign against teen pregnancy." A new private, nonpartisan group has emerged to accept that challenge. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy notes that more than 40 percent of American girls become pregnant by age 20, the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. Eighty-five percent of these pregnancies, according to the group, are unintended. The premise of the Campaign is that teenage pregnancy contributes mightily to many social problems, that national leaders shy away from declaring that it is wrong, and that initiatives to reduce teen pregnancies are disjointed, little noticed, and poorly supported.

          The Campaign's goal is to reduce the U.S. teen pregnancy rate by one-third by 2005. Its strategy is to help organize local coalitions of community-based groups to confront the problem at the local level, prod political leaders to raise the public profile of the issue, evaluate the successes and failures of various teen-pregnancy programs, and enlist the news and entertainment media in the effort to change cultural norms.

          Perhaps the most significant feature of the Campaign is its acknowledgment, rare in public policy, that "part of a strategy for reducing teenage pregnancy should be a more overt discussion of religion, culture, and public values." To pursue that goal, the campaign is dedicating one of its four task forces to "religion and public values." This task force is chaired by William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton, and includes Heritage Foundation analyst Patrick Fagan, Mary Rose McGeady of Covenant House, scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a representative of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, among others. Former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean and Urban Institute scholar Isabel Sawhill are the board chairman and president, respectively. The Campaign will accept no government funding.

* Sarah Brown, executive director, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy -- tel.: 202-857-8655, fax: 202-331-7735.

New-Style Conservation

          Leading a coalition of scientists, business groups, property-rights advocates, and conservationists, the National Wilderness Institute recently released its "American Conservation Ethic." The document comprises a set of principles for protecting the environment and managing resources without recourse to "old-style environmental thinking" that relied on federal mandates. Sound environmental policy, says executive director Rob Gordon, should enlist "liberty, free markets, property rights, scientific inquiry, technological advancement, and a realistic understanding of the natural world." Among its principles:

  • Renewable resources are resilient and can be used and managed wisely;
  • Efforts to control pollution should measure both benefits and costs in a scientific fashion;
  • Management of natural resources should take into account the conditions of particular situations and sites;
  • Public policy should be guided by science;
  • The most "promising new opportunities" for conserving and improving the environment lie in protecting private property and "unleashing the creative powers of the free market."

* NWI -- tel.: 703-836-7404, fax: 703-836-7405, e-mail: %2074747.2650 [at] compuserve.com (.)


School Choice in Milwaukee

          Supporters of school choice generally frame their argument in economic terms. They compare public schools to "monopolies" that can get away with a shoddy "product'' -- substandard education -- because poor parents have nowhere else to go. By giving these "consumers" more educational choices, it is said, vouchers will introduce an element of "competition" into public education, thereby forcing public schools to raise their educational standards or risk losing their "customers."

          In Break These Chains, former presidential speechwriter Daniel McGroarty looks at the school-voucher controversy through the eyes of a journalist, not an economist. He offers a "battlefield account" of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which claims to be "the first ever 'voucher' plan, providing public funds for private school choice." In the process, he makes some important modifications to the standard arguments for school choice.

          For example, McGroarty challenges the view that public schools are not responsive to incentives. On the contrary, he argues, the problem is that they're too responsive: "Not only is there no penalty for failure, the objective fact is that poor schools prosper. When funding follows failure, bringing underachieving schools more social workers and school psychologists, special 'stay-in-school' programs, an army of 'at-risk' coordinators and early intervention experts, schools faithfully produce the failure that begets funding. Failure, in this Orwellian inversion, is success. Schools, predictably, sink to the challenge."

          McGroarty also points out that choice in practice is sometimes very different from choice in theory. "At an abstract, theoretical level," he notes, "one can champion freedom of choice and condemn, for example, the faddish focus on multicultural curricula without confronting a simple fact: Some parents, given a choice, will choose multicultural schools." In McGroarty's view, the "Afrocentric focus" of many choice schools constitutes a positive aspect of the school culture. "Voucher advocates," he argues, "must have the courage of their convictions to accept choice in practice."

          For McGroarty, the decisive argument for school choice is not an "economic" one -- promoting competition -- but a moral one: parental empowerment. He quotes the principal of one Milwaukee choice school who, when asked what made her school so special, cited parental involvement. "Choice parents are more active than our tuition parents are," she said. "Choice parents want the opportunity to get involved with their child's education."

          When parents become involved, the results are near-miraculous, as McGroarty demonstrates by comparing the educational effervescence at choice schools like Urban Day School and Messmer High School with the apathy and hopelessness of their public-school counterparts. All these schools are located in the same square mile of Milwaukee's poverty-stricken Near North Side, yet are worlds apart in their ethos and record of achievement.

* Break These Chains: The Battle For School Choice by Daniel McGroarty (Prima Publishing).

Technology and Home-Schooling

          "A concern for independent thought, a longing to strengthen family, and a frustration with the bureaucratic limits of conventional schools" are leading some families to opt for home-schooling, according to Britton Manasco, writing in Reason. "Home schoolers are a statistically small but rapidly growing and increasingly influential force in America. Their numbers have jumped from 15,000 to 20,000 in the late 1970s to perhaps 600,000 today (some estimates put the number above 1 million.) The trend is likely to continue, as new products and institutions develop that make it easier for parents to educate children at home."

          Home-schoolers have a powerful ally in the new information technologies that "make it possible for students to learn at their own pace and in their own way, with the teacher serving as a mentor and an intellectual coach -- guiding, supporting and questioning individual learners. . . . [Information technologies] decentralize learning, no longer tying it to the physical infrastructure and administrative overhead of schools."

          Critics of home-schooling argue that "individualized learning" fails to develop social skills such as cooperation, collaboration, and communication, but Manasco disagrees. "No one is arguing that technology be employed to the exclusion of human contact and personal warmth. Individualized learning hardly implies learning in isolation. Communications technologies and networks can enlarge one's set of possible associations and even allow for collaborative learning projects that cannot be replicated in the classroom. In a proper setting, they can help facilitate both individual and interpersonal skills."

          Equally important, the new educational technologies will also empower parents. "Whether or not political efforts to encourage taxpayer-funded alternatives to government-run schools ultimately succeed, families already have the option of withdrawing from the educational system. . . . As leaving or supplementing traditional schooling becomes more attractive and less costly, the egalitarian ideology and assembly-line pedagogy that dictate one-size-fits-all education cannot remain unchanged."

* "Special Ed," by Britton Manasco, Reason, July 1996.

The Catholic School Edge

          Studies have consistently shown that Catholic schools are educating minority students better than their public-school counterparts, despite the fact that per-pupil expenditures in Catholic schools are only one-third those of tax-funded public schools. "Catholic schools succeed where state schools fail," writes Sol Stern, "because they have virtually no central-office bureaucrats telling principals how to do their jobs. In public schools, teachers almost automatically get tenure -- a lifetime job guarantee -- after three years. Most Catholic schools around the country have no tenure system whatsoever. . . . And there is no rigid credentialing system: Principals can select teachers for their talent and commitment."

          Given Catholic schools' success in educating minority youth, "you might expect that liberals, self-styled champions of disadvantaged children, would applaud [their] commitment and sacrifice," writes Stern. "You might even expect them to look for ways to get government money to these underfunded schools. Instead, they have done their best to make sure the wall of separation between church and state remains impenetrable. Liberal child-advocacy groups tout an endless array of 'prevention programs' that are supposed to inoculate inner-city children against delinquency, dropping out of school and teen pregnancy -- yet they consistently ignore Catholic schools, which nearly always succeed in preventing these pathologies."

          Stern attributes the lack of liberal interest in Catholic schools to the fact that liberal opinion leaders are closely allied to the teachers' unions, "which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of liberal candidates around the country." As a result, we are ignoring an inspiring laboratory of reform. "Catholic schools are a valuable public resource not merely because they so profoundly benefit the children who enroll in them. They also challenge the public school monopoly, constantly reminding us that the neediest kids are educable and that spending extravagant sums of money isn't the answer."

* "The Invisible Miracle of Catholic Schools," by Sol Stern, City Journal, Summer 1996.


Age Will Be Served

          According to economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo, "establishment seniors groups" like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC), and the National Council on Aging (NCOA) are little more than tax-supported advocates for Big Government. "They have a vested stake in maintaining the status quo," he writes in a new book published by the Capital Research Center, "even if it leads to the bankruptcy of programs that seniors depend on." As Baby Boomers age, two programs of critical importance to senior Americans -- Social Security and Medicare -- are certain to suffer financial collapse in the near future unless they are reformed now. Yet the "dependency lobby," as DiLorenzo calls the AARP, NCSC, and NCOA, steadfastly opposes needed changes.

          According to DiLorenzo, the AARP is "the nation's second-largest nonprofit organization after the Catholic Church. It is perhaps the most influential political organization in America, devoting vast resources in efforts to expand welfare and entitlement programs for seniors. AARP has supported a higher minimum wage, more rent control, 'motor-voter' legislation, higher gasoline taxes, higher alcohol and tobacco taxes and higher capital gains taxes." AARP "continues to assure its members that the Social Security system is financially sound," and its lobbying for higher Medicare and Medicaid spending "has helped bring these programs to the point of bankruptcy." About a quarter of its revenues come from federal funding.

          The NCSC, which in 1993 received 96 percent of its funding from federal revenues, supports "income tax increases, cuts in defense spending, 'motor-voter' legislation, a national health-care plan including long-term care, more government housing, and expanded government programs for seniors."

          In contrast to these groups, DiLorenzo reports that millions of seniors are joining "a new generation of seniors groups that emphasize voluntarism, consumer choice, and fiscal responsibility. They understand that the welfare-state policies championed by the groups comprising the so-called dependency lobby are as harmful to seniors as they are to younger Americans." Although the combined budget of these organizations -- The Seniors Coalition, the United Seniors Association (U.S.A.) and the 60 Plus Association -- is about $20 million, compared to the $450 million budget of the "Big Three" seniors groups, the influence of pro-market seniors groups is growing. Unlike their counterparts in the "dependency lobby," notes DiLorenzo, these new seniors groups recognize that Social Security and Medicare are in trouble, and favor market-oriented reforms to avert a crisis.

* Frightening America's Elderly: How the Age Lobby Holds Seniors Captive by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, Capital Research Center -- tel: 202-393-2600, fax: 202-393-2626.

The Crisis of Fatherlessness

          "If present trends continue," writes David Popenoe, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, "the percentage of American children living apart from their biological fathers will reach 50 percent early in the next century." This "massive erosion of fatherhood contributes mightily to many of the major social problems of our time. . . . Fatherless children have a risk factor of two to three times that of fathered children for a wide range of negative outcomes, including dropping out of high school, giving birth as a teenager, and becoming a juvenile delinquent."

          In his new book, Life Without Father, Popenoe attributes the erosion of fatherhood to two causes: the "divorce revolution" and the sharp increase in nonmarital births. These two trends, in turn, reflect a dramatic change in American culture over the past 30 years -- a shift away from any sense of communal responsibility towards a radical individualism.

          Until quite recently, Popenoe argues, American individualism was "tempered by a strong belief in the sanctity and importance of social units such as families, neighborhoods, schools, religious organizations, local communities, and the nation as a whole."

          But today's "radical, expressive, or unencumbered individualism is devoted much more to self-aggrandizement at the expense of the group. In place of group purposes serving as personal goals, self-expression, sexual freedom, and even impulsiveness have been substituted. . . . No longer having a strong institutional repository, moral authority has become increasingly centered within the psyche of each individual. At the extreme, we are becoming a nation of asocial hedonists and narcissists."

          The crisis of fatherhood, then, is ultimately a cultural crisis, a sharp decline in the traditional sense of communal responsibility. It therefore follows that to rescue the endangered institution of fatherhood, we must regain our sense of community. Popenoe offers several "community-building guidelines designed to promote marriage and family life." These include the fostering of "residential stability," the revitalization of "community moral standards," the "development of smaller cities and towns," and the protection and promotion of "family-oriented neighborhoods." "Without violating the Bill of Rights," Popenoe concludes, "local communities should have more autonomy in establishing and enforcing their own values and moral standards," and "homogenous neighborhoods made up of families with children, possibly up to the size necessary to support neighborhood schools, should be protected and encouraged."