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Jewish World Review April 16, 2001/ 23 Nissan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Reaching for the moon -- THE most ambitious promise George W. Bush made to us during the campaign was contained in four little words: "No child left behind.'' If he can deliver on that one he'll deserve to be up there on Mount Rushmore. His education program will go down as the equal of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry Truman's Marshall Plan and John F. Kennedy's successful race for the moon.

The cynical think he'll probably have more in common with Lyndon Johnson and his dismal War on Poverty. But the War on Poverty was born of good intentions and died of bad timing. George W.'s timing is good and successful learning theories abound. Americans are ready for educational reform if the politicians can be open to the notion that different ideas work for different kinds of problems.

It helps him that Laura the Librarian shares his ambition (and it helps even more that he didn't put her in charge of it). Congress is ready for compromise, too, but only as long as the word "voucher'' isn't mentioned. That's too bad.

I've been out taking informal surveys in my own neighborhood in an ethnically diverse area of Washington and I've learned that if all politics is local, vouchers make good local politics.

One mother told me how she slept three nights in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in front of the public elementary school where she wanted to enroll her son in kindergarten. She lives on the wrong side of the school-district boundary and camped out with other parents to qualify for one of the spaces left over, if any.

Another mother told me that she had put her home up for sale so that she could buy a smaller one in a more expensive neighborhood with a better public school. "It's cheaper than private school tuition,'' she said. She wouldn't consider sending her daughter to the junior high school zoned for the neighborhood where she now lives.

Still another mom asked, perhaps joking, whether I knew anyone who would sell her an imaginary lease on an apartment in a ZIP code with a passable public school. Another mother and father are actually contemplating the actual rental of an apartment in the neighborhood with the good public school because their spacious house, a few blocks away, is in a zone with a bad school.

Not everyone is desperate. One lucky couple said they were fortunate because they found a new charter school and were thrilled to learn how good it is. Parents disappointed in the neighborhood school in their affluent neighborhood organized the charter school, and turned out to be better at hiring teachers and organizing a curriculum than the educationists in the school bureaucracy downtown. The school goes only through the fifth grade and there's already a waiting list for every grade, and plans for grade expansion.

These are stories of city kids of the middle class, not the deprived kids of the underclass. This is the anecdotal evidence that everyone has heard before, with variation on a single theme: A lot of public schools are rotten and if you live in neighborhoods zoned for those schools you're stuck. The only alternatives are expensive private schools, and there's a waiting list.

The underclass, as everybody knows, has it the worst. The latest study of reading skills of fourth graders, made by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows the gap widening between the best- and the worst-performing students. There are lots of kids in the middle class who should be doing better, too. Only a third of the fourth graders tested nationally can read close to the third-grade level, continuing the downward slide over the past eight years. Not even half of the schoolchildren in other grades can read anything appropriate to their age.

Vouchers are no panacea, but they would spur creativity and entrepreneurship. The system as it exists couldn't be much worse, though left untouched it will surely get worse. Vouchers would enable parents to shop for schools, public and private, the way they shop for bargains in groceries and clothes, and use their own tax dollars to find a better alternative. It's time, it seems to me, to think big, as big as we were thinking when we reached for the moon.


04/13/01: Who's sorry now?
04/10/01: The details
04/05/01: News that wasn't fit to print
04/02/01: The devil in the legal details
03/29/01: Making marriage glamorous
03/27/01: Crime and punishment on the small screen
03/23/01: When speech isn't free
03/19/01: Russell Crowe doesn't wear a Black Beret
03/15/01: 'The little intimidator' of the breakfast table
03/13/01: "We are asking the Creator for clemency"
03/08/01: Saving El Salvador with dollars and sense
02/27/01: The last cowboys of their craft
02/23/01: When Bubba graduates to Bobo
02/16/01: Clarence Thomas addresses an imperfect world
02/12/01: Ariel Sharon, not by Steven Spielberg
02/07/01: Profaning the sacred with the political
02/05/01: What's the Creator got to do with it?
02/01/01: Live like the snopses, leave like the snopses
01/29/01: It's education, stupid
01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
01/02/01: This year, looking ahead is sure sweeter than looking back
12/21/00: Black power with a Republican face
12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
12/13/00: Hillary in the lion's den
12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate