Some politicians are hypocrites when the issue is public schools

By William G. Mayer, 9/30/2000

n the mid-1980s, many reporters and commentators took great glee in pointing to the predicament of a group of senators and representatives called the ''Chickenhawks.'' These were people, primarily conservative Republicans, who talked all the time about the need for a stronger military and a ''get tough'' foreign policy even though all did their best to avoid personal military service during the Vietnam War.

In the interests of fairness and balance, I hope that we can now expect similar attention toward a group that might be called the ''public school privateers.'' These are top governmental officials, mainly liberal Democrats, who oppose a voucher plan on the grounds that it would harm the public schools - even though they and their children have consistently attended private schools.

The most currently visible of the privateers is Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. One of the Gore campaign's leading mantras over the last two years is that vouchers are bad because they take precious resources away from the public school system. But outside of publicity tours, Gore has had strikingly little real contact with public schools.

Gore was a student in the public schools for a little more than a year. The vast majority of his formal education was acquired in a series of very good private schools - in particular, the Sheridan School and St. Albans School for Boys. Gore's educational career, it might be said in his defense, was chosen largely by his parents. But Gore and his wife have made the same choices for their children.

The four Gore children have an educational history much like their father's: an early year or two in public schools, followed, beginning at the age of about 9, by an unbroken attendance at private schools.

In this respect, Gore is following the precedent set by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Though the president has spent eight years opposing even the most cautious attempts to experiment with a voucher system, and though Hillary Clinton advocates the same position in her New York Senate race, the Clintons apparently felt no inconsistency in sending their daughter, Chelsea, to private school throughout their years in Washington.

As a Massachusetts resident, I vividly remember how, throughout the 1994 campaign, Senator Edward Kennedy challenged opponents of national health insurance to explain why ordinary Americans didn't have the same kind of health care plans that were routinely available to US senators and representatives. Unfortunately, no one seems to have asked Kennedy, an avid voucher opponent, to explain why the same principle didn't apply to education. Why shouldn't ordinary Americans have the same kinds of choices that are routinely available to the Kennedys?

Like many ardent defenders of the public schools, Kennedy himself has never actually been a public school student. His own education was an unusually mobile one: By the time he entered college he had attended 11 different schools. All were private. Kennedy's children have all received educations that are more stable but no less private. None has ever attended a public school.

My point, I hope it is clear, is not to criticize these men (or their spouses) as parents. All made choices that were, they believed, in the best interests of their children. Indeed, had they been motivated only by political expediency, had they been willing to sacrifice their children's welfare to their own ambitions, they would surely have made the opposite decision and sent their children to public schools. But if the words ''selfish'' and ''expedient'' do not apply here, the word ''hypocrisy'' does.

Since at least the 1930s, Democrats in general - and these three men in particular - have won elections largely by portraying themselves as opponents of economic privilege and inequality. Just as it was relevant to ask the Chickenhawks why they were willing to impose burdens on other people's children that they themselves had tried to avoid, so it is reasonable to ask Gore, Clinton, and Kennedy why they have worked so actively to deny less wealthy Americans an option that they themselves routinely take advantage of.

William G. Mayer is an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of ''In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees.''