Munchausen syndrome besets the Federalists

BY GREG LIPPER

Monday afternoon, as I scampered through the Hark en route from my most recent Charles Ogletree-sponsored appearance in Roxbury District Court (charges against my client were dismissed with court costs, for those of you keeping score at home), I ran into a volunteer-type table staffed by 2L Amanda Gregory. Gregory holds the dubious distinction of being my one and only Ames groupie (who mystified Mr. & Mrs. Lipper at the Ames Finals banquet by claiming to be a “very big fan” of their son). But on Monday, she was sporting her Mother Teresa hat, representing the Federalist Society in a novel new endeavor. It seems that our determined young Federalists, on sabbatical from their day job of pretending that Miguel Estrada has “never thought about” Roe v. Wade, have endeavored into the world of charitable solicitation. Yes folks, they were holding a book drive.

Not just any book drive. “A non-partisan effort sponsored by Advocates for Education and the Harvard Federalist Society.” The proceeds of this group hug will help stock the library of a new, Bob Herbert-approved charter school in Harlem. Fliers informed passersby that the beneficiary is one of a series of “rigorous, high-standards middle schools successfully raising achievement for at-risk children.” For once, the Law School’s conservative element was doing something that that even I can’t find fault with, right?

If only. On its merits, I think that the book drive is a great effort, helping to provide resources to inner city schools without having to involve the Catholic Church. Indeed, I will be purchasing a few of my favorite childhood novels to contribute to their collection (Peter Hatcher fans, unite!). But I do find just a tad ironic the notion that the Federalists are taking credit for a very modest effort to provide items that most of the schools we went to took for granted — while simultaneously devoting their organizational machinery to supporting members of government that starve these very schools of funding.

Ideally, at-risk children would not depend on the whims of right-wing Harvard Law students to provide them with funding. The money that will be devoted to these books represents the icing off the trillion or so dollars in dividend, estate and income tax cuts that Federalist-types support. Efforts to increase federal education funding are dubbed unduly burdensome to states’ rights; efforts to abolish taxes shift fiscal burdens to states and localities that prevent them from exercising these so-called rights. No matter. For the Federalists can appease their collective consciences merely by taking a trip to the bookstore and reliving their fading childhood.

Unfair, protest the Federalists!! Indeed, my sources tell me that Gregory considered drafting a response to my column before I had even started writing it. (This means that we can look forward to a particularly polished Letters page next week, but I digress.) After all, isn’t this just another case of The RECORD’s resident gadfly unfairly chiding, Oscar Schindler-style, a charitable program for not doing more? (Hey, somebody please tell Lea Sevcik that I’ve just written her next column for her).

Yet programs like this are a microcosm of a troubling phenomenon in educational policy — the reliance on private funding to support strapped schoolchildren and the resulting liberal identity crisis (aptly described this weekend at a bright and early American Constitution Society event). Vouchers, charter schools, and for-profit schools all present viable alternatives to the woeful state of American public schools. Those who decry the barren state of public school finances can credibly argue that supporting these programs sacrifice long-term efforts to provide adequate education for the non-rich in favor of a short-term fix. Those who support them acknowledge this tradeoff but nonetheless believe that the educational needs of children at present should take precedent over long-term benefits.

Whatever position one takes on the matter (I personally tend towards the latter), it should be done with ones eyes open. The book drive is nifty, and I commend Advocates for Education for organizing it (rather than, say, ranting about stuff in a column every other week — although I can at least pat myself on the back for providing free publicity and the prose of Judy Blume). But the pro-education organizers of this book drive should have kept their eyes open, and not unwittingly allowed themselves to help the right wing pull a fast one. No matter how big the tax rebate in their mailboxes, the Federalists ought not to have their cake and eat it, too.

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