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Jewish World Review May 18, 1999 /# Sivan, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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Free our kids: revive the land of opportunity

(JWR) ---- (
MORE THAN A million kids.

That's almost one out of every 50 schoolchildren in America.

And that's how many applied for the $170 million in scholarships to private schools being offered by a fund that's the brainchild of a Wall Street billionaire, Theodore J. Forstmann, and Wal-Mart's John Walton.

The scholarships were available only to kids from poor families. So please don't give me that line, and lie, about how poor folks aren't interested in their kids' education. They care. By the million. They may be more interested in their kids' education than a lot of the rich -- because they understand what a dramatic improvement a good school with good teachers could make in their kids' future.

Most of the applicants for these scholarships, which were awarded in a computerized lottery, came from the public schools. Which is not exactly a vote of confidence in the kind of education We the People are providing these youngsters.

Messrs. Forstmann and Walton, bless 'em, have not only helped a lot of young people with these scholarships. They've sounded another alarm about the state of public education in this country, at least in the kinds of schools that hold kids captive rather than really educate them.

There are lots of folks in this country with a vested interest in preserving these bad schools' hold on good kids. There are the administrators who don't want to be held accountable, and the teachers' unions that care mainly about their own power and perks. In short, the kinds of ``educators'' who fear competition so much, they'd rather disable another generation than risk free and open competition in American education.

And please spare me that other line, too, the barely disguised racist one about how public education shouldn't be held responsible for the poor performance of so many of these kids because they come from a different ``culture,'' one that doesn't much care about learning.

Tell it to a mother like Desira Walker of Little Rock, Ark., whose picture was in the paper after her two boys were awarded a couple of these coveted scholarships. She was clearly thrilled, and so were her boys. Altogether, 1,250 of these scholarships were handed out to families here in Arkansas, and 40,000 nationwide. And many more kids applied.

Imagine the gates that would be opened, the minds cultivated, the talents discovered if every underprivileged child in America who's stuck in an awful school were given the chance to transfer to the school of his or her choice. The old Jeffersonian dream of an aristocracy of merit arising out of an equality of opportunity would be given new life.

Suddenly faced with real competition, some of the worst schools in the country might even wake up and, to keep their students, become some of the best. It could happen. Competition has been known to work.

You don't have to imagine what could happen. One far-seeing state -- Florida -- has already started its own, public version of Forstmann-Walton Scholarships. Its legislature has passed, and Governor Jeb Bush has been only too happy to sign, a bill that will allow students in that state's worst schools to switch to better ones, either public or private.

Every public school in Florida will now get a report card, based on how well its students do on standardized tests. (It's about time we graded schools, too.) Each school is soon to be rated A, B, C, D or F. And students in failing schools can get their tuition paid at private schools if they want to transfer. Or they can switch to a higher-ranked public school.

What's more, Florida will provide its kids with more than an opportunity to switch schools; it will put up $500 million to tutor students in failing schools. Everybody wins.

What a good idea. Not just for the kids, but for the public schools -- which will have to do a better job now to hold on to their students. And for the state, for its future.

The better educated our kids, the better we'll all be. Who knows, one of these little suckers might find the cure for cancer one day, or the key to world peace or just invent the better mousetrap or, in these times, the better mouse.

Of course there will always be those who confuse their own power and perks with the betterment of education. They warn that Florida's approach will just drain the better students out of inner-city schools. But why should these kids' education be stunted so the usual vested interests can maintain their iron grip on American education?

Nor do the critics seem to realize that the poorest students in a school would also be helped if competition raised standards for all.

What a lack of faith, of vision, of common sense this blinkered, self-interested view represents. A rising tide, including a rising tide of scholarships, will raise everybody's boat. It's the American dream: equal opportunity. And not just Florida should seize it. Other states need to provide school vouchers for kids who are now being shortchanged.

How would America be changed if a kid born today in East Harlem, or in the barrios of South Texas, or in a shack in the Ozarks, had the same pick of schools as little J. Wexwroth Pennington III of Park Avenue and Nob Hill?

Answer: America would be changed infinitely for the better -- and our schools would be, too. Because they would compete. Because it would be harder for poor schools to exploit poor kids. School vouchers could prove the most effective instrument of democracy since the secret ballot.


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11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
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9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
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9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
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8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
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7/9/98:The language-wars continue
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6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate