the battle over school choice

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The Politics of School Choice
chester e finn, jr.

Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, where his primary focus is the reform of primary and secondary schooling. He was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education.

read his interview

It seems that suddenly there's a big debate about public education. The presidential campaigns are debating this issue now. What do you make of that?

I don't think the big debate is sudden. It goes at least back to 1983 and the so-called Nation at Risk report, and it actually goes back farther. We've been debating education and education reform in this country, and actually working in various ways to try to do something about it for a while now. But this is looking like the first presidential campaign in my memory where education has loomed large as a presidential campaign issue. That's new. The debate itself, I think, is not new.

Why do we have presidential candidates talking big-time about education? I think there are two answers. One is that the voters have made real clear that in a time of general peace and prosperity, this is one of the foremost things on their minds. This is one of the top concerns that . . . any candidate in his or her right mind would want to respond to what voters are interested in. Secondly, for the first time in my memory, we've got a Republican candidate with a real track record in education, and a considerable knowledge of the subject, who wants to talk about this. In the past, typically, the Democrat has wanted to talk about education, and the Republican has sort of had to. This time, I think we actually have the tables a little bit turned. We have a Republican who would rather talk about education than almost anything else, and a Democrat without actually very much of a track record of his own who might just as soon avoid the issue if he could, but he knows he can't. In any case, he has the Clinton administration's record that he is running on, and that is a track record, even if Al Gore doesn't have a separate track record of his own. . . .

I want to ask you about vouchers. There was as an opinion piece in the New York Times that basically said the voucher issue could be an Achilles heel for the Gore campaign, that he was vulnerable on this issue. Do you think that that is an issue on which Gore is politically vulnerable?

You're going to find that the voucher issue is the clearest political difference between the two candidates and the two parties. . . . But behind that is something of a difference in what I'd call people's theory of change. Gore, who is deaf on vouchers, is vulnerable in some communities that are beginning to think that vouchers are the route to freedom and success, notably, urban minority communities. Now, will urban minority communities turn against the Democratic candidate over this issue? I don't know. I'm not a good enough political analyst to know that. But I do think that as the low-income and minority opinion of vouchers has become pretty strongly positive, and as the urban school systems have begun to feel more and more like a prison, like a trap, Democrats who are hostile to vouchers may one day discover they have to pick between the minority urban residents and the teachers' unions. That's a very painful choice for a Democratic candidate.

Clearly, the teachers' unions heavily back Mr. Gore. To what extent are the teachers' unions really still an obstacle to fundamental education reform in this country?

There are a lot of obstacles to fundamental education reform in this country. A lot of vested interests and large interest groups like the status quo, and don't much want any fundamental shifts in the ground rules. But the teachers' unions are the 800-pound gorilla. They are the largest, the wealthiest, the most populous, the ones with the large numbers of votes, the big war chests, and things like that. They are joined in these matters by the school boards' association and the administrators' association and the teachers' college association and the textbook publishers' association. We can go on down a very, very, very long list. But none of them has the size or the wealth or the clout of the unions, especially when the two unions agree with each other on something. . . .

On the issue of standards and accountability, don't a lot of Democrats and Republicans see eye-to-eye?

One thing that makes this whole political education issue complicated is that there's a lot of convergence on a number of specifics within the field of education reform. Standards, tests and accountability have a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats all saying, "Yes, this is the way to go," or "This is part of the way to go."

What do you think about Governor Bush's record in Texas, specifically in these terms? He raised teachers' pay, and the teachers' unions down there say they basically like him. They got along with him. He imposed and kept going a system of standards and accountability. He's putting more money into construction of school buildings. He's emphasizing public schools, and when vouchers were proposed, he was very lukewarm, and didn't push for them. There are no state voucher programs or city voucher programs in Texas, just one that's privately funded. In a way, doesn't that sound like a kind of Al Gore record as governor of Texas?

Texas has a lot of charter schools, and they're pretty free, and Texas does have a fair number of these privately funded voucher programs, not just the one in San Antonio. I believe these are operating in several cities in the state. But as governor, Bush has done what governors do, which is to have standard tests and accountability, to try to improve the schools and try to create some options for kids. No, he did not fall on the sword over vouchers. His brother in Florida has one of the more interesting voucher programs in the country. But George W. didn't make that his lead issue. He has, however, done a good job with the issues that he's embraced. I think that the data show it. Nobody's going to claim that a big complicated state like Texas has a perfect record here. But I'm especially struck by the degree to which minority students in Texas now lead the nation among minority students. They're not where they ought to be, but they're doing better than minority students in anybody else's state, and I think that's pretty impressive. . . .

Bush sends his twin daughters to a public high school.

Well, that's better than Gore did. There's a seriousness in Bush. I've been in a room with him two or three times as he's been talking about education, and he's got a lot of passion and a lot of knowledge in this area. I think he's sincere, and motivated. His record is not a kind of classic hard-right pure-marketplace type of Republican record. When you look around, actually, very few of the Republican governors have those kinds of records anyway. Even the ones who have pushed pretty hard for school choice have also pushed for standards and tests and accountability and things like that. The sort of hard-right agenda is more often found among a handful of congressmen than it is among people who are actually responsible for running states. . . .

This issue of Gore sending his children all to private schools here in the District has become something that's now been mentioned in several campaign appearances. But on the other side of that, isn't it also true . . . that no politician wants to send his or her daughter to a public school in the District of Columbia?

. . . When people say they're in favor of school choice, it's not hypocritical to send your kids to private school. What I think galls a lot of folks is to profess that poor people have to keep their kids in the public schools, but "because I am fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to St. Alban's or Sidwell Friends or National Cathedral School, I am free to do so, because I just happen to be lucky and rich and powerful. But you poor folks, stick with the public schools, we don't want to give you any options." That's hypocritical. . . .

Are vouchers the cutting-edge issue between Bush and Gore?

You're going to find that the voucher issue is the clearest political difference between the two candidates and the two parties. That's the thing where it'll be easy to hear disagreement about. But behind that is something of a difference in what I'd call people's theory of change. What ultimately is going to bring about different behavior and different results in American schools? Not what would you like to see different--but what's going to cause things to change? What's going to cause people to alter their behavior? I really do think that, at the end of the day, Al Gore's theory of change rests on a regulatory model. It rests on people in Washington telling you what to do differently and checking to see whether you've done it. And I really do think that George W. Bush's theory of change rests to a great extent on the consumers and the locals having an improved consciousness about what needs to happen, and having options and greater control at the local level, with a kind of audit outside to see whether improvement is really occurring.

I really think that if you go an inch below the surface--and this may never turn up in debates because it's a little complicated--you'll find that Gore believes that Washington is going to bring about the change. Bush thinks that Washington may facilitate some, but that finally it's going to come about because parents and kids and teachers have more options and because local people have greater responsibility. . . .

Gore's model here rests on a kind of central planning notion of how you bring about diversity. It doesn't rest on entrepreneurialism, on energy, on creativity, on the marketplaces at all. It really rests on some assistant superintendent for long-range planning making a list of offerings that they're going to provide, and then a series of federal enforcers coming to make sure that each of those offerings conforms to about ten different federal laws and requirements. This is not an entrepreneurial view of change. This is a top-down, corporatist, big-government view of change. I do think he wants change, and I know he believes that that should include more diversity of offerings of education. What's going to bring it about in the Gore worldview are those central planners, and in the Bush worldview, it's entrepreneurs. . . .

Bush is pushing the idea of, to use another jargon term: "portability" for Title I. You know what that is. Is that a good thing?

Title I is the biggest federal program. It's about $8 billion a year. It's meant to help poor kids to learn to read and write, to catch up with rich kids. It's 35 years old, and for 35 years it has been a complete failure. Title I is the biggest failure in the educational arsenal. It has closed no gaps, and it has caused no gains. So the question is whether it needs a fundamental overhaul or just more of the same. The administration is plumping for more of the same. Some of the Republicans are pushing for a fundamental overhaul.

One form that a fundamental overhaul could take is to take that six or eight or nine hundred dollars per poor kid and let the family decide where to spend it. It doesn't have to be their day school. It could be at an after-school program. It could be at another school. It could be for something over the Internet. And certainly, if they moved their kid in pursuit of a better education and a better school, why shouldn't the federal money go with that kid? He's still poor, he's still disadvantaged, but the way the Title I program works today, the money stays in the school even if the kid leaves. This is just nuts. So portability, strapping the money on the kid's back so that it goes where he goes makes really good sense for Title I, and for a lot of other federal program.

But that's not nearly enough money to pay for a child's education.

It's not meant to be a full tuition payment. It's meant to provide supplemental services. So if you go from a school that has a so-called Title I program into a school that doesn't have a so-called Title I program, your $800 might buy you an after-school tutor, or a Saturday morning program. The point is to help kids catch up, not to pay their full tuition.

Is that the main reason why I should vote for Governor Bush for president as far as education is concerned?

I will probably vote for Governor Bush within the education domain. We have to learn more about what both these people stand for in other areas. But I like his education record because he's actually figured out what's wrong with the system, and he's done some serious things to try to turn it around on his watch in Texas. That includes the whole standards thing, but it also includes a lot more choices and a lot more consumer power. I think this is a pretty persuasive record, and I compare it with the Clinton administration, or the Clinton-Gore administration's track record in education, which I find really pretty disappointing in spite of all the big talk. There are perhaps some genuine, sincere good ideas. I don't find it a compelling record.

clint bolick

Bolick is co-founder and Director of Litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice, begun in 1991 as the "nation's only libertarian public interest law firm" and as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Institute for Justice represents parents and children in various legal cases across the country in support of school choice, including the Cleveland, Ohio lawsuit regarding a publicly funded scholarship program, where the Institute has joined with the state of Ohio to defend the state's voucher system.

read his interview

Al Gore's first education commercial is an anti-voucher commercial.

Al Gore sent his own kids to private schools. For him to argue against school choice for less fortunate people is one of the most brazen acts of hypocrisy. What those commercials show is that he is an utter and total hostage to the teachers' unions, and that as president of the United States, he will not do anything to promote genuine education reform.

Texas Governor Bush is now running for president, and supporting vouchers very strongly. But oddly enough, from my point of view, in Texas we found he didn't really push vouchers. Were you a little disappointed in the governor's support?

Governor George W. Bush recognized that it was going to be a very tough sell in the legislature in Texas, and as a result, he kept his political powder dry, which was disappointing. By contrast, here at the federal level, Congress has already passed a tax credit for educational expenses for all Americans. It's passed a school choice program for the District of Columbia, only to have those programs vetoed by President Clinton. I think any Republican in the White House is going to be able to take a very successful step to implement school choice for all Americans. . . .

The Republicans consistently have fumbled away golden opportunities to steal the crown jewel of the Democrats' policy agenda, which is education. The Democrats cannot go where the Republicans can go, because they're hostages to the teachers' unions. The Republicans can promote greater choice in education, greater accountability in education. But time and time again, they have failed to articulate that--failed to take that message to the inner city where they could expand their base dramatically. Who knows what will happen in this election?

molly ivins

Ivins is an nationally syndicated columnist for her home paper, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram. A three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, she is the former co-editor of The Texas Observer, the former Rocky Mountain bureau chief for The New York Times, and co-author of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, published in February 2000.

read her interview

I really think the single most important thing to remember about trying to fix the schools is that there is no such thing as an instant result. It takes at least ten years. Sometimes it takes 20 before you can see whether or not what you tried to do back here actually worked. And so, the fact [is] that, before Bush was ever elected governor, school scores [in Texas] were going up, the minority kids were making real progress, and we had a system of school accountability in place. None of that is down to Bush. What's annoying about Bush and education is that he's claiming credit for things he does not deserve credit for. But he does deserve some credit. I mean why couldn't he just claim credit for what he's done? It's maddening. . . .

But Bush does deserve some credit on education. Here's the infuriating part. Number one he didn't do anything to screw things up. And believe me he could have. Number 2 he was really a good player in his first session [of] '95 on rewriting the Texas education code.... And reforming an education code was, as I [said], not really a great battle. But it took some effort, took a push, and was certainly a step in the right direction....

By the '99 session, Bush was pretty busy running for president. He really wasn't paying that much attention. Then, of course in '99, the thing he tried to get done was vouchers, school vouchers. And he had sort of promised that to the Christian Right and in one of the more hilarious moments of all time, he needed one more Republican vote in the senate, which, in theory, he [needed to have] in order to get the bill onto the floor. And [he] personally jawboned senator Drew Nixon, who has the distinction of being the last guy in the Texas legislature most recently convicted of a felony crime. And Drew got convicted for soliciting a prostitute and illegal possession of a weapon. And he had to serve six months in a half way house while he was also serving in the Texas senate. So Drew's prospects of reelection really didn't look that bright. And you would think that he might have responded to his popular leader, but you would be wrong. Bush couldn't turn that one vote. And so his long promised voucher thing went down the tubes.

And then sometimes with Bush--this is another thing you have to watch with education reform--I know it's all [these] boring policy wonk words--but implementation is often critical, and here's an example. Bush came in. He was red hot for charter schools. He thought charter schools [were a] big part of the solution to the problem of public schools. For all I know, they may turn out to be an excellent idea. But what happens, the way you always start a government program is you take a little baby step.... So we started by chartering 17 of these schools, and we were going to wait a year or two to see how they were doing, but Bush was so keen on this idea [that] I think we chartered over 200 of these schools the next year. And, of course, there were exactly two people in the Texas education agency who were supposed to be in charge of this process. They were totally overwhelmed. We were giving charters to people who were totally unqualified. People with no education, people with financially questionable past....

As you can imagine, there was just one disaster after another. Some people would spend all the money fixing up the building and then they'd be flat out of money before the school year started, and never admitted a single student. In a rather notorious case in Waco, there was so much financial mismanagement that the school just had to be flat shut down. And [there] were all those Waco kids [who] just lost an entire year of education. And this was not, unfortunately, a terribly rare event. Now, as I say, it may be [that] the charter schools will turn out to be a good idea. But when you just do things that stupidly you're inviting disaster. We wasted millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money because we didn't do it carefully....

You say in the book--and this is an old maxim for politics--"Would you rather be smart, or would you rather be lucky?" Now, on education, George Bush inherits this whole program, virtually--accountability standards, small classes, more money spent on schools.

Yeah, and it is an old truism in politics, "It's better to be lucky than smart." And Bush locked into such a deal. We were just starting to see the payoff from all those terrible fights [over education policy] that we went through in the 80s, the early 80s. the late 80s. The scores were getting better. The minority kids were doing much better. The whole system of accountability for the schools was already in place. All he had to do was just ride that horse to the finish line. And, credit to him that he didn't pull back on the reins. But the amount of credit he deserves for the whole thing--I try to give him credit for what he deserves credit for--but it's pretty maddening when you see him claiming so much....

william galston

Galston is a professor and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs. He served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the Clinton Adminstration and is serving as a senior advisor to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 campaign for the Presidency.

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In addition to being an academic, you are an advisor to Vice President Gore. Let me ask you a political question about vouchers. There was an op ed piece in the New York Times recently which argued that Vice President Gore was vulnerable to the criticism that his own children were in private schools, had been educated in private schools, but that he was going to deny choice to poor black parents because he was opposed to vouchers. Do you think that that's something that the Republicans might use to try to go after the Vice President in the campaign, and that [Gore] might be vulnerable on that issue?

...I don't know of a lot of people who think of vouchers as the solution to the problems of American public education. There are a number of public opinion surveys that indicate that fewer than one fifth of Americans believe that vouchers are, or could be, the solution to the problems of American public education. The argument about sending one's own children to private school is a familiar debating point. I suspect very much that the American people are going to make up their minds about education policy in the year 2000 on the basis of the programs and the commitment and the overall credibility of individuals putting forward their plans. ...

Could you give me the highlights of the Vice President's program? I know it's 115 billion dollars--that's been the headline figure. What do we get for the $115 billion? What's he proposing?

The Vice President is proposing a comprehensive program that begins, in effect, at age 3 or 4 and goes all the way through post-secondary education and training. First, he's put a plan on the table, with the federal government in partnership with the states. [It] would guarantee quality pre-school for every child. Why is this so important? The very first national education goal stated by the governors, and then agreed to by the governors, and then President Bush more than a decade ago, was that every child would reach first grade ready to learn. Well, some children come from more fortunate circumstances than others. For some without quality pre-K, the goal of reaching first grade ready to learn is very unlikely to be realized. And, if we are interested in equal educational opportunity for every child, then we had better be prepared to invest in the sorts of programs that especially poor and disadvantaged kids are going to need in order to be comfortable with learning the content and the process from first grade on.

Governor Bush on educational reform in Texas reminds me of the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. In fact, Governor Bush has done little more than continue the programs of his predecessors. Another thing you're going to get for the large investment that the Vice President has proposed is school buildings that are fit to learn in, that are in good repair, that contain the technology that kids need to learn for the 21st century. And that sends a signal of concern and respect for every student and every learning opportunity whether it's in a wealthy suburban area or a poor urban area. You are also going to get an accountability program. You're going to get accountability for students in the form of higher standards and federal support for beefed up testing. You're going to get accountability for teachers. The Vice President has called for a test to be administered to every new teacher before he or she begins teaching that will demonstrate and guarantee competence. Not only in pedagogical technique, but also the content of the courses that that teacher is proposing....

What do teachers' unions have to say about this? The political charge against the Vice President is that he's in the pocket of teachers' unions and that teachers' unions are resistant to reform, especially to anything that would merit pay proposals, for instance, or in some cases to even testing.

You'll have to ask the teachers' unions what they think of the Vice President's proposals because, not only has he called for testing at the threshold, but he's also called for the development of fair but expedited means of getting rid of incumbent teachers who aren't measuring up. So take those two the heads of the major teachers. The Vice President, of course, hopes that, on sober reflections, the teachers' unions will understand that they have an enormous stake in the credibility of the system of public education....

You have these studies showing that the most important way to improve students learning is by having a good teacher. We also need an enormous number of teachers because we have this baby boom echo of the largest number of kids ever in kindergarten through 12th grade. So what do we do?

We are faced with the task of recruiting more than 2 million high quality teachers for public education in the next decade. Now that figure sounds dauntingly large. It represents a modest increase over the yearly recruitment that has been required in the previous decades. So it is not the towering crisis that some have maintained that it is but it's still a major challenge. It is for that reason that the Vice President's education proposal includes a proposal for a 21st century teachers' corps which would defray a substantial portion of the four-year college and teacher training expenses of young people who are willing to commit to teach for at least four years in high-needs areas, after they get their high school [degrees], their college diplomas, and their teaching certificates....

There has been a very remarkable [increase] in the past 2 or 3 years in the percentage of entering high school freshmen who say they are interested in becoming teachers. They see this as a career that can really make a difference. It's a way of expressing their idealism. It's a way of expressing their commitment to their country. It's the task of the country now to meet this youthful idealism half-way, or more than half-way with programs and opportunities that will convince our most talented young people that teaching is how they want to spend their lives . . . .

In his State of the Union address this year President Clinton said that if a school--even in a very poor neighborhood that's struggling--if they don't measure up, they should be closed. Do you agree with that?

I agree with that, and the Vice President agrees with that as well and has put forward a program that would help identify those failing schools, help them improve and, in effect, change them over to new management if they don't. That is the least we can do for kids in those schools. It is intolerable that we tolerate failure in schools, because in tolerating school failure we tolerate unequal opportunity for some students in this society....

Let me ask you another political question. We've been in Texas. In Texas, Governor Bush backed standards, accountability. He opposed vouchers. What's the difference, on a national level, between Bush and Gore when it comes to education?

We shouldn't end with Texas but we should at least start there. And Governor Bush on educational reform in Texas reminds me of the rooster taking credit for the sunrise. In fact, Governor Bush has done little more than continue the programs of his predecessors. Interestingly, a survey of Texas Republicans, taken just a few weeks ago, indicated that more than 40% of Texas Republicans questioned Governor Bush's credentials as an education reformer. So the idea that Governor Bush is some sort of path-breaking leader in educational reform is not one that will survive inspection. Having said that, as one moves to the national level, the principle questions that ordinary voters ought to be asking themselves, in my judgment are these: 1) Who has a program to insure that every student reaches first grade ready to learn? Vice President Gore has proposed such a program and, to the best of my knowledge, Governor Bush has done nothing of the sort. 2) Who has a plan to ensure that every student is in a school building fit and safe for learning? Vice President Gore has proposed such a program and, to the best of my knowledge, Governor Bush has not. 3) Who has proposed a program to insure that there are quality teachers in every classroom in this country and who has given not just rhetorical support to that, but programmatic and fiscal support as well? Vice President Gore has proposed a 21st century teachers' corps to get hundreds of thousands of teachers into those schools and school districts that need them the most. What's Governor Bush's plan?

At the other end, Vice President Gore has proposed a series of innovative measures to insure that every young person can go off to college, that every family can save for a college education, because increasingly in the 21st century economy, post-secondary education and training are the key to opportunity and to success. That will be a major point of debate and contention in the fall. So if voters are asking themselves those basic questions about the basic building blocks of educational quality, then Vice President Gore has nothing to fear from the comparison with Governor Bush. . . .

There have been some slashing TV ads back and forth in Illinois, in the primary coming up. The Bush education ads...[are] saying that the Title I money that's being given to failing schools should be taken away from those schools and given directly to parents to use as vouchers. What's wrong with that?

So, what Governor Bush is unwilling to defend at the front door, and indeed unwilling to defend as educational policy for his own state, he's now trying to achieve through the back door at the national level. I wonder why? Everybody agrees that the single largest federal program for poor kids and poor schools, namely Title I of the Elementary Education Act, needs to be reformed in order to make it more effective in reaching its goals. The fundamental question is: what kind of reform? Vice President Gore believes that the best way to make Title I more effective is to make schools in poor areas more effective in doing their job for all students. And the Vice President does not understand how that objective can be furthered by giving some students the opportunity to remove money from the schools that are the hardest pressed as things now stand. So reform of Title I? Yes. A back door voucher program? No. . . .

What do you think of charter schools? That's been something that's been pushed by a lot of educational reformers, Republicans and Democrats. In his State of the Union address again, President Clinton said that charter schools should double to 3000. Republican rebuttal never mentioned charter schools, which I thought was interesting that night.

Charter schools are one of the unsung success stories of public education reform, not only at the state and local level but also at the federal level. If memory serves me right, when President Clinton took office, the number of charter schools in this country could be enumerated on the fingers of two hands. Today, at last count, there were more than 1700. The Vice President is strongly in favor of the most rapid possible expansion of charter schools, consistent with basic regulatory and quality standards. He has called for a major increase in federal support for states that are moving in that direction...[Making] public school choices available to parents can create the kinds of incentives for improvement throughout school districts that are needed in order to catalyze change. So charter schools--absolutely--[should be] part of our future.

School choice is a hot phrase for the politics of education these days. When you talk to some people and they say school choice, what they mean is privatization. What do you mean by school choice?

School choice means the use of public funds in order to provide the widest possible range of effective choices among public schools for parents....In this country, unlike some others, we do not compel students to attend public schools if their parents don't wish them to attend public schools. So we believe, constitutionally and culturally, in choice. The Vice President believes that the best use of public resources and the most appropriate use of public resources is to dramatically expand the range of choices available among public schools. So that means more choice within districts. It can mean more choice across district lines, a strategy that a number of states are now experimenting with. One state, Minnesota, has done it comprehensively so that if you're a parent with a school-aged child, [you can] in effect...send your child to any school in the state.

Public school choice means a lot more charter schools. Public school choice may well mean a movement away from the large mega-schools, that are characteristic of a number of urban districts and some suburban districts, to a larger number of much smaller schools, including schools that are focused on more specialized subjects that lead down particular career tracks. There are very, very exciting developments in public school choice going on across the country and the Vice President, as part of his program for the revolutionary reform of American education, is interested in backing as many [school choice programs] as states and localities are willing to experiment with.

So, alternative schools, magnet schools, school experiments within the public school system, charter schools, yes, but vouchers, no?

The widest possible range of experimentation in public schools, charters, magnets, inter-district choice, a cross-district choice, specialized schools, schools within schools, breaking up larger schools into smaller schools--to all of those, yes, absolutely. To the use of public funds for non-public education, the answer is no....

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