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. . . But How Free Is a Country in Which Elites Make Social Policy in Secret. . .

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Robert Holland

How much does our system differ from Chinese totalitarianism when our national political and economic elites decide a societal restructuring must occur, regardless of popular will?

STW Dissent Verboten

This is America, land of the free. Here the people rule, in utter contrast to the phony "people's republic" President Clinton is courting for an inglorious nine days. At least that's the congratulations we'll give ourselves as we gorge on barbecue and wave the red, white, and blue on the Fourth of July.

But how much does our system differ from Chinese totalitarianism when our national political and economic elites decide a societal restructuring must occur, regardless of popular will? The drive by the Clinton administration and its powerful allies to integrate education, training, labor policy, and economic development by means of a nationwide School-to-Work system raises that question most urgently.

EVEN CITIZENS who might favor converting public education into a tool of workforce development ought to question the un-American way STW is being implemented. They should, that is, if they believe in freedom. Ask: Has your school board or local PTA had a full and free debate on the idea of eighth-graders being required to declare career majors? And then consider what happened at a nationwide STW conference in Cleveland June 14-18 sponsored by the National School-to-Work Office (NSTWO), a joint operation of the U.S. Education and Labor departments.

The conference attracted STW personnel from 43 states and Puerto Rico. Like countless such confabs, it was held in a ritzy hotel, and of course the taxpayers picked up the tab. But it was different from many such gatherings in one very important respect: Federal STW officials singled out Diana Fessler, an elected member of Ohio's State Board of Education -- a paid registrant at the conference -- and banned her from key meetings she wished to attend. Elected to represent the 1 million citizens of her district, Ms. Fessler takes her responsibility very seriously. She has compiled and published on a website (www.fessler.com) research on STW that may be the most comprehensive anywhere.

ONE COULD be pro-STW and still appreciate the depth of her studies. Of course, none of that mattered to the unelected NSTWO bureaucrats, who knew only that Ms. Fessler has deep reservations about STW. They obviously had checked their enemies list before Ms. Fessler showed up for what was billed as a "strategy" meeting of the eight states that received the first round of federal grants to put the STW system in place. She could be called a "dissident," like those in China whom Bill Clinton has gingerly encouraged. Maybe, at that, our Diana Fesslers should be grateful they're not exiled or imprisoned -- just prevented from doing their official business.

Yes, the NSTWO politburo was primed to deal with this dissident. The agency's interim director, Irene Lynn, personally told Ms. Fessler that not only could she not attend the eight-states session but neither could she go to Communications Task Force meetings the next two days.

Furthermore, Ms. Lynn said her office already had consulted legal counsel as to the legality of closing the meetings. Yesterday, NSTWO communications director Nancy Mathis said the meetings were limited to representatives of the eight states, and to state communications directors, and Ms. Fessler qualified on neither count. But public conferences normally are open to members of the public without such limitations. Ms. Lynn told board-member Fessler government workers often assemble for mere "working meetings" among themselves. Yes, but such sessions are in the Dilbert-style cubicles taxpayers give them for their daily blatherings, not in distant swanky hotels.

"I find it incredible," Ms. Fessler wrote in protest to Education Secretary Dick Riley and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, "that those who claim that STW is good for kids, good for the economy, good for our nation, and worthy of replication find it necessary to conduct the public's business behind closed doors." (Exactly. What are the architects of STW trying to hide?) When Ms. Fessler made much the same comment to a NSTWO official in Cleveland, a conferee nearby piped up with, "Well, the FBI meets behind closed doors." That comment brings to mind another example of STW traveling under police-state trappings.

WHEN California was considering its STW plan in 1995, state senator Bill Leonard protested in a letter to the state's school chief that bureaucrats were denying even his staff copies of STW documents that were to be the subject of public comment. Furthermore, he was aghast that a state STW committee member, without challenge from other members, had said, "By design, we are doing social engineering. We're using education to consciously invent the future of our culture and society. Let's get to it and acknowledge what we're doing"-- adding that Hitler and the fascists "gave social engineering a bad name" and "if good people were the engineers, then social engineering would be acceptable."

Responded Leonard: "It does not matter whether the engineers are Nazis or kindergarten teachers -- the idea that a government bureaucracy can better determine the direction of your child's life than the parents is frightening. It is Big Brother and it is being funded by our tax dollars right now."

Speaking of Big Brother, the prime purposes of the Cleveland meeting, according to Ms. Fessler, were (1) to identify and analyze "obstacles" to advancing the STW agenda, and (2) to develop "strategies" to overcome them. Obviously, people who disagree with the government line are among those obstacles, and the powers-that-be fully intend to neutralize them.

That's the way state power functions in Communist and fascist nations. It is not the way it's supposed to work in a sweet land of liberty.

rholland@timesdispatch.com

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