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The liberals just now beginning to feel snug again in Washington should beware. A new revolt by parents is brewing in the country against the cultural elite and the liberal bureaucratic state - a revolt that promises to shake the halls of power as forcefully as did the tax revolt that began in the early 1970s.

The 1974 election seemed to be a disaster for conservatives. In the aftermath of Watergate, the most liberal freshman class ever to grace the halls of the Capitol descended upon Washington. A wave of "progressive" legislation soon followed. Pundits looked at the American political world in the mid-1970s and predicted that resurgent liberalism would dominate the landscape for years to come.Yet the story of the last half of the 1970s was not one of liberalism triumphant. The real story turned out to be the rise of a taxpayers' revolt against liberal government, a rebellion that featured anti-tax initiatives in several states and fueled the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.IN RETROSPECT, one can find the signs of this nascent tax revolt even in the elections of 1974. Normally free-spending New Yorkers defeated a multibillion-dollar transportation bond issue by a 3-2 margin; voters in the state of Washington repealed a salary hike for their legislators; and in California, voters came close to approving Proposition 1, a pioneering attempt to use the initiative process to reduce taxes. A short time later, Californians passed Proposition 13 limiting property taxes, which became a model for similar tax initiatives nationwide.

These votes were the product of middle-class America's outrage over the ever-increasing tax burden, combined with the belief that government services were ever more ineffective and government policies ever more questionable. Later in the 1970s, this outrage was channeled into a political movement.

That movement had a doctrine - supply-side economics - that provided a rationale for tax cuts. And that movement had a leader, Ronald Reagan, who was willing to identify his future with the cause. The doctrine and the leader turned a populist revolt into a political revolution - the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.

Where the taxpayers' revolt stood in 1974, the parents' revolt stands today. On the surface, a liberal president and Congress dominate the scene, infatuated with grand visions of a new era of activist government. And the doctrines of liberalism seem more politically correct than ever before.

But if we look deeper, we see a different picture. Across the nation, parents of all races and classes are rebelling on behalf of their children against the education and social-service bureaucracies which, parents believe, squander their money and scorn their values. This parents' revolt has, until now, mostly simmered beneath the surface. But there have been occasional eruptions:

- In Queens, N.Y., parents rebelled against an attempt to impose a "gay rights" curriculum on their first-graders and succeeded in ousting the school chancellor.

- In Milwaukee, citizens overwhelmingly defeated a referendum supported by the city leadership to build more public schools, and an advocate for parental rights came close to winning an upset victory in the state's school superintendent race.

- In Chicago, inner-city parents have lobbied the Legislature and filed suit in court to claim their right to choose a decent education for their children.

Even from the cultural elite, we now hear acknowledgments of the central importance of the family. And from believers in big government, we now hear acknowledgments that governments do not raise children; parents do.

This, too, is reminiscent of the 1970s, when even mainstream public-policy experts became increasingly critical of government taxing and spending policies, thereby legitimizing the taxpayer's revolt. Today it is not hard to find even "sophisticated" liberals who are appalled, for example, by a judge's ruling in Shreveport, La., that teaching sexual abstinence in a public high school violates the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.

Signs of a coming parents' revolt are clear. One further major development is that parents are starting to think of themselves as parents, and to organize as such.

Before the mid-1970s, citizens organized as disparate constituent groups. It was a major breakthrough for the tax revolt when citizens began to think of themselves as taxpayers. The voting gap in the 1992 election between parents with children and other voters suggests that parents could now begin to see themselves as a distinct political force.WHERE does the parents' revolt go from here?

It will need to move beyond anger and outrage toward a coherent agenda. Among several potential elements of a "parents' agenda," one is likely to emerge as central: parental choice and control over their children's education.

The enactment of one or another form of "school choice" strikes at the heart of the power and presumptions of the public-school establishment. And it is the public-school establishment that undergirds the edifice of social service providers who seem to be usurping the proper role of parents.

Just as tax limitations and tax cuts sought to restore financial autonomy to citizens, so does school choice seek to restore moral and social control to parents. And just as tax cuts limited the resources available to politicians, so too would parental choice curtail the authority and discretion available to bureaucrats.

In this way, the parents' revolt of the 1990s is not simply analogous to the taxpayers' revolt of the 1970s; it builds on and deepens a populist rebellion against the liberal bureaucratic state.

There will be parental choice initiatives on state ballots over the next several years. There will be legislative initiatives at all levels and candidates will increasingly embrace parents' issues. Ultimately, though, political movements need a leader. In the early 1970s Ronald Reagan identified himself with the incipient taxpayer revolt. In the 1980s, he was elected president as its spokesman, and he built a coalition that would control the White House for 12 years - until his successor reneged on a pledge not to raise taxes.

The parents' revolt is under way. It will soon break through into the political daylight. The question that remains is this: Who will speak for the parents?

1993 New Perspectives Quarterly

Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate