American values, justice & opportunity at risk

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By James Florio

The establishment of a system of universal public schools for all American children was a historic event for the world and the key to our Nation’s development and prosperity. It provided unmatched literacy levels for our citizens and a commitment to excellence as a national goal. It enabled people from every country on the globe to be blended into one people representing an amalgam of ideas of freedom and opportunity through upward mobility. Our diversity was molded in the public schools into our strength.

Now we find, through proposed voucher systems, a rejection of our unifying universal educational model. The rationale for this break from our uniquely American initiative is that some of our schools, especially those in urban and remote rural areas, are failing. Therefore, it is argued, let’s provide the more motivated students with vouchers to escape to private and religious schools. The majority of students left in such failing schools are collateral damage.

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In espousing vouchers, we are tossing in the towel on the concept of traditional American education. The can-do spirit of this nation ~ that got us through two World Wars, the Great Depression, landed a man on the moon and did all of the other things that have bred American Exceptualism ~ has been extinguished.

The task of improving all of our failing schools to acceptable levels of learning is apparently too great a challenge for voucher advocates. They would unilaterally surrender in the upcoming global economic competition.

The unraveling of this key component of the fabric of the American Dream is but one problem associated with vouchers. The desire to use them for religious schools strikes at another fundamental tenet of our Constitution. The First Amendment clearly prohibits public funding for religious activities. The courts have always found such funding to violate the “Establishment Clause.”

A supreme irony is that as our foreign policy seeks to foster secular Democracies in the Middle East, we would have our government start to finance religious institutions.

A particularly insidious aspect of this development is how we would finance vouchers. Notwithstanding dramatic revenue shortfalls, voucher proposals would authorize businesses to write off of their State taxes ~ dollar for dollar ~ tax credits to pay for the vouchers; now slyly disguised as “scholarships.”

Eight hundred million dollars lost to the State Treasury! Fiscally responsible citizens understand that tax credits are tax expenditures by another name. BOTH RESULT IN LOST REVENUE…Tax breaks for businesses should be so labeled and not thought of as educational funding. Where are the fiscal conservatives???

Finally, the voucher initiatives are part and parcel of a troubling set of developments that are shredding the very essence of traditional American values. Equal justice and opportunity are at risk from the growing bifurcation of our economy. The documentation is clear that while a small percentage of our affluent citizens capture a greater percentage of our income and national wealth, the vast majority of middle and working-class citizens fall further and further behind, their purchasing power diminishes and their lives become more stressed.

On another front, current proposals in Wisconsin and elsewhere threaten to eliminate workers’ rights to collective bargaining ~ not a prescription for social stability or economic justice.

Now, we have this voucher initiative to further divide us into those who will be ready for the knowledge-based economy and those who will be left to fester in failing schools from which we have siphoned off the most motivated students. All of this ~ because we are not up to the challenges of fixing our entire educational system leaving many of our children permanently behind the curve.

I believe we are better than that…

Former Governor James J. Florio


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