The Bush education plan is too timid

We need to give families a choice -- and that means vouchers and charter schools.

Topics: Education, Budget Showdown,

When it comes to the budget, education is clearly President Bush’s fair-haired child. While most federal programs are being sent to their rooms without supper, Bush’s signature issue is being treated to an 11.5 percent spending increase. But the response is completely inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis.

Bush may be willing to spend $600 million more on elementary school reading programs and $320 million on developing annual assessment tests for reading and math, but he has failed to address the key question: After spending all those millions on remedial reading and testing — a very expensive way to re-re-reconfirm just how badly our children are failing — what do we do next?

The answer is what we should be doing right now.

What we are facing is nothing less than an educational catastrophe, with 37 percent of fourth graders unable to read. The statistics get even grimmer when broken down by economic and racial groups. Sixty-three percent of African-American fourth graders are functionally illiterate, as are 60 percent of poor children.

Given this “educational apartheid,” it is not surprising that African-Americans are at the forefront of demanding revolutionary measures to solve a crisis that is devastating their children’s chances for a productive future. Mikel Holt, who chronicled the landmark battle for school choice in Milwaukee, has no illusions about what is at stake. “The old civil rights movement got us to the lunch counter,” he says. “The new civil rights agenda is: Can our kids read the menu?”

And young African-American leaders are rallying around this agenda: “It’s one of the last remaining major barriers to equality of opportunity in America,” Newark, N.J., City Councilman Cory Booker told me. “We’re not going to fix our schools by tinkering with them. It’s going to take radical changes, and we have to be willing to experiment ‘by any means necessary’ — including with vouchers.”

Vouchers have become the hot-button topic of the education reform debate. But choice is precisely what millions of American families are exercising every day — either by opting out of the public school system entirely or by moving to a neighborhood with a better-than-average school. It’s only poor parents who are left with the ideological privilege of standing by an education system that practically everyone who can afford to has already deserted. In the words of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options: “School choice is widespread — unless you’re poor.”

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It’s hardly surprising then that despite the massive propaganda against school vouchers, 60 percent of blacks support them. The number is even higher among the poorest blacks: 72 percent.

What Abraham Lincoln said in his second annual address to Congress in 1862 applies powerfully to today’s education crisis: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present … As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Or as Colin Powell put it at the Republican National Convention last summer: “Let’s not be afraid of charter schools. Let’s not be afraid of using private scholarship money to give poor parents a choice that wealthy parents have. Let’s not be afraid of home schooling. Let’s experiment prudently with school voucher programs to see if they help. What are we afraid of?”

One of those decidedly disenthralled and unafraid is billionaire financier and philanthropist Ted Forstmann, who three years ago co-founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund, designed to help 40,000 low-income kids receive a high-quality education at the school of their choice. The response was overwhelming: The fund received 1.25 million applications from all across America, in some cities hearing from a third of the eligible population. This is what happens when a choice is presented where there was none before.

Forstmann is applying precisely the kind of radical thinking needed to change the American education system, which he calls “as powerful a monopoly as has ever existed.” He argues that it’s time to stop debating the easy stuff of the old paradigm: “No monopoly in history has ever been reformed by expanding office hours, by building more office space or even by making its customers wear uniforms.” Or by raising its budget by 11.5 percent.

The fact that we are dealing with an unresponsive monopoly was recognized even by Al Shanker, the legendary former president of the American Federation of Teachers: “It’s a bureaucratic system where everyone’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s not a surprise when a school system doesn’t improve.”

Ironically, in the vanguard of those working to transform American education is another billionaire businessman. Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, has identified teacher effectiveness “as the single most important factor driving student performance” — with top teachers able to boost the test scores of students up to 50 percentage points above the scores of those under the tutelage of the least-effective instructors.

And with schools facing the daunting prospect of having to fill the 2.2 million teaching vacancies expected over the next 10 years, it is the height of irresponsibility that attracting — and keeping — more high-quality teachers is not at the top of the political agenda. Bush can test all he wants, but until we start paying and treating our teachers better, our national report card will continue to be littered with F’s.

It’s well past time to acknowledge that nearly 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education we are witnessing a de facto resegregation of our schools. Jonathan Kozol, who has written extensively on the isolation of children in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, has observed it firsthand: “There are 11,000 children in the elementary school district and, of them, 21 are white. These are numbers that would have done honor to Mississippi in its darkest, most benighted hour.”

In this, our schools’ benighted hour, we don’t need more testing. The results are in: Bush’s fair-haired child can’t read. And it’s going to take an educational revolution to change that.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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