During his recent presidential primary debate with Bill Bradley at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Vice President Al Gore was asked a question which he obviously did not want to answer. Why does he oppose school vouchers, which 60% of black voters favor? Gore performed a few verbal arabesques and then changed the subject. As a liberal Democrat, Gore is “pro-choice” on many issues, especially abortion — but not when it comes to making private school options available to our children.

A few weeks prior to the Harlem debate, there was another, far more enlightening forum in downtown Manhattan. Celebrated man of letters Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff) addressed an audience of business executives concerned about the quality of education in New York. In a talk titled “How to Rescue American Education Without Spending Another Dime,” Wolfe said that the smartest thing the New York public school system could do is turn the entire enterprise over to the Roman Catholic Church.

Wolfe's words are worth quoting: “Look, I am not a Roman Catholic. I am a lapsed Presbyterian; I have been looking for a religious bone in my body, and I can't find one. But I have eyes and I see what works, and what the Roman Catholic Church is doing in New York works.”

Wolfe was only saying what poor, inner-city families who scrimp and save to pay parochial school tuition already know. The city's public schools are a disaster, while the parochial schools get results. There is no demographic difference between the students in the two systems, yet 85% of parochial school graduates go to college vs. 27% of public school graduates. Parochial school students score much higher on standardized tests and have a much lower dropout rate.

Parochial schools achieve all this with far fewer resources than the public school system. Several years ago, while researching a book called The Growth Experiment, economist Lawrence Lindsey phoned the headquarters of the New York school system and asked a simple question: How many non-teacher employees administer your system? Nobody seemed to know, but the answer turned out to be 10,000.

Lindsey then called the New York Archdiocese and asked the same question. When the woman who answered the phone asked him to “wait a minute,” Lindsey thought he was in for another bureaucratic runaround. But the lady was merely counting the number of employees on a piece of paper. She soon came back on the line and told him: There are 50.

Author Tom Wolfe suggests: give the entire education enterprise to the Catholic Church.

Adjusted per capita, that means the Catholic school system is doing a better — and far more efficient — job with 0.5% (that's one-half of 1%) of the administrative personnel.

Why do so many liberals take such a patently illiberal position on vouchers? First, we are told that, since many parents would use vouchers to send their children to religious schools, government vouchers violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Do we need to repeat what the First Amendment actually says? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Until recently, these words were understood precisely as intended by their authors: The federal government has no business promoting a religion in the manner of the established church in England. But the states could do whatever they pleased with religion; and, indeed, Virginia had an “established” Episcopalian Church in the late 18th century, which nobody considered unconstitutional. The framers of the Constitution would be puzzled by modern arguments that every level of American government is bound by an aggressively secular interpretation of the religion clause of the First Amendment.

Another favorite anti-voucher complaint is that vouchers will drain scarce resources from the public school system, which will make their plight even worse. But the fact is that even well-funded public school systems in rich suburbs often do a lousy job. And the reason is simple: They enjoy a monopoly, and monopolies seldom feel obliged to respond to customer complaints. The public school where I happen to spend my summer vacations is awash in local property tax dollars; it also has something called “outcome-based education” in the classroom, whose object seems to be to retard the intellectual progress of the brightest students. The parents hate it, but there is nothing they can do.

If we look at the third, unspoken reason why a liberal Democrat like Gore opposes vouchers, we get to the truth of the matter. The teachers'unions have 3 million members; they constitute a workhorse for the Democratic Party. In fact, they sent more delegates to the 1996 Democratic National Convention than did the entire state of California. Unions have often been a progressive force in our society, but in this case they represent a vested interest that above all wants to preserve a status quo that doesn't work.

These unions, and their political clientele, wish to deny to poor children a privilege exercised by the affluent, including the large number of public school teachers who send their own children to private schools. Their self-serving anti-voucher campaign ought to be resisted by any politician who is genuinely progressive.

George Sim Johnston is the author of Did Darwin Get It Right?