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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2001 / 8 Shevat, 5761

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas
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End education mediocrity. Put children first --
IF no child is to be left behind, as the conservative Bush Administration and the liberal Children's Defense fund sloganeer, then no child should be forced to remain in an education system that practically guarantees that child will stay behind in school and in life.

That's the philosophy behind President Bush's education initiative announced Tuesday at The White House. The proposal has four objectives: 1) annual testing in reading and math in every primary grade (the test will be developed by each state and measure progress toward a universally-recognized standard); 2) schools and school districts, not Washington, will be primarily responsible for implementing reforms; 3) the federal government will assist states in their transition to higher standards; 4) if any school consistently fails to meet minimal standards for three straight years, vouchers will be offered to parents who may send their children to schools of their, not the government's, choice.

Liberal Democrats, such as Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, are saying there's a lot they agree with in the Bush proposal but that vouchers remain a stumbling block. Look for Kennedy and his allies to try to move vouchers to the back burner where the option might be more easily knocked off the stove.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who once supported vouchers with nearly as much fervor as he once supported cleaner entertainment, has already said that the Democrats' approach is to ``pour more money into poorer schools, give the teachers and principals more flexibility on how they are going to use that money and...if they are not working, close the schools and radically restructure them, give parents an opportunity to send their kids to a higher-performing public school.'' Attempts to revive the decrepit government school system have failed before and can only fail again. Something different is needed.

Look for Democrats to work to keep vouchers from being included in a final education bill. Democrats know if they lose control of the government schools, they will lose the support of the teachers unions, which are a major source of money and votes.

Opponents of vouchers and change are fighting a losing battle. Increasing numbers of us agree with Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who has said, ``Reading is the new civil right, the cornerstone of hope and opportunity in America.'' Any system that fails to produce results after all of the time and the billions of dollars that have been poured into it doesn't need renovation. It deserves to be completely replaced with curricula that serves children first and the political and personal interests of unions and politicians last.

The loss of the priority of putting children first has led to too many failures. Liberals, who believe choice is a fundamental right when it comes to abortion, view choice as a fundamental wrong when it comes to education. If choice is paramount, why not allow parents the choice of where to educate their born children?

What Bush needs to do to win this battle and break the grip the education establishment has on the minds and spirits of the young, especially the poor, is not only to engage his opponents in debate, but to showcase children and parents who have benefited in Texas and elsewhere from his education policies and ideas. Let white politicians tell a tearful black mother that the failing school her children are trapped in is really in the best interest of those children, especially when the politicians' own children attend private schools.

School choice is supported by large numbers of African-Americans, who, like all of us, want their children to have a better life than they have had. Black pastors can be consulted because they are in closest contact with people in need.

Transforming education alone won't transform lives. Parents and churches also need to be part of the "responsibility era'' of which President Bush has spoken. But better schools are an important start.

We can fix what's wrong with education, not by throwing more money into a system in which too much money has already been wasted, but by changing what is learned and how it is taught and by whom. Qualified, motivated teachers and students who come to learn in a system that produces the results all of us want, but have not received for several decades, ought to be our objective. The current system won't get us there, no matter how much money is spent on it.

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