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Campaign 2000: Follow the Money

4 minute read
Matthew Miller/Los Angeles

To listen to the hyperventilating that followed George W. Bush’s maiden campaign speech on education the other day in Los Angeles, you’d think the Texas Governor had proposed something radical. “Dangerous,” declared Education Secretary Richard Riley. “Risky,” cried Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Al Gore seemed downright mad: “Bush wants to slam the door” on public schools, the Veep said, with a “back-door voucher plan.”

Jeepers. All Bush said was that in a program that amounts to 2% of overall K-12 spending, some schools serving poor kids might, if three years of state tests show they really stink and aren’t improving, see their federal (and some state) cash given instead to parents in $1,500 chunks to use as they see fit. Forget whether the idea is sound or not: the one sure thing is, it’s so modest that it won’t accomplish much of anything.

That such small beer can set off a furor proves how ideologically hamstrung our schools debate has become. Still, if Bush’s plan is largely symbolic, it’s also sensible, offering coherent baby steps to lift the skills of America’s neediest kids. Take his plan for Head Start, the popular preschool program that serves 850,000 disadvantaged children. While the 35-year-old program was meant to close the achievement gap between poor and middle-class toddlers, researchers agree it has brought no lasting gains. Most say that’s because Head Start has become more of a day-care service stressing health and nutrition, not literacy, as well as a jobs program for local mothers. It is true that kids can’t learn unless they’re healthy and well fed; but with no curriculum and loads of shoddy teachers, Head Start isn’t living up to its potential.

Last year Congress nudged the program in the right direction, but the steps were meek: four-year-olds who know 10 letters of the alphabet, for example, are felt to be on track. Bush would require lessons that stress prereading and math, teachers who can teach this and evaluations to make sure it is done well. If existing centers don’t deliver, Bush would sensibly make them compete with others for their federal contract.

Bush’s more controversial plan involves “Title I,” which sends $8 billion yearly to schools with poor kids. These grants can amount to $150,000 for a typical 500-child school; they’ve usually been used for teacher’s aides or special remedial classes, without great results. Reformers in both parties say the idea of holding schools accountable for progress is overdue. The prospect of being penalized by having the federal money rerouted directly to parents “gets the attention of educators and the bureaucracy,” says Ray Cortines, a Democrat and former schools chief in New York City and San Francisco. If states feel pressured to avoid such embarrassment, Bush’s plan could jump-start reforms at troubled schools. And while the left loathes the idea of vouchers, some experts think Bush’s notion that dollars should follow poor kids could be the first step toward better targeting Title I cash, which now gets unfairly diverted via political horse trading to schools in more affluent districts.

Still, on the first day of school at Coliseum Street Elementary in central Los Angeles last week, Bush’s insistence that “no child should be left behind” seems to miss a larger point. Like many other poor urban schools, Coliseum is chronically short of textbooks, computers and supplies, not to mention experienced teachers. Many such schools spend less per pupil than schools in surrounding suburbs despite having more high-need kids. Bush knows this is wrong: he waged a worthy but losing fight in Texas to rejigger school funding in 1997. Thus far he’s been mum about such injustice on the stump. Nor does he say that as Head Start improves, it will need cash to reach beyond the 40% of eligible preschoolers it now serves, most in part-day, part-year programs that don’t fit the needs of working mothers. Even Bush’s plan to make Title I funds “portable” after three years is too cheap: $1,500 barely covers tuition at some parochial schools and is not enough to test the voucher idea. Little wonder that with all the burdens facing poor schools, word that the G.O.P. front runner wants to take away Title I money feels like another slap. “It irritates us,” says Coliseum principal Zoe Jefferson of the pols. “They come up with solutions that sound easy to sell in one-liners.”

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