Saving Public Education

Public education, the melting pot for each next generation of Americans, is healthy in much of the nation. But where it fails it does so calamitously.

That's usually in inner-city schools. So it's not surprising that all kinds of cures are proposed to help what are often the students and families least able to help themselves.

Those cures have included: (1) creation of specialized public magnet schools, and moves to install teacher and pupil performance tests; (2) addition of state-approved charter schools to compete with lagging public schools; (3) provision of government-funded vouchers that help pay tuition for students switching to private or parochial schools.

We continue to feel that the first two of these three cures are useful to improving public education quality. The third, despite good intentions, is a recipe for rescuing some and dooming a majority. In short, a recipe for tilting America toward the class divisions that in the past plagued parts of Europe. Last week, the direction of the American educational system veered in this risky direction.

* The Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld a Milwaukee voucher program that allows public dollars to flow to private and parochial schools.

* House and Senate conferees put final touches on a bill that would federally underwrite, to the tune of $1.6 billion over 10 years, tax-free educational savings accounts to encourage parents to send their children to private schools.

* Two wealthy businessmen announced a national scholarship fund that will match money raised locally to allow poor children to attend private or church-affiliated schools.

This last item, we hasten to say, is of less concern than the first two. Private efforts to expand educational opportunity, in this case led by New York financier Theodore Forstmann and Wal-Mart heir John Walton, deserve praise. But their decision to direct the aid exclusively toward private or parochial schooling adds to a picture that should give the public pause, for two reasons.

First, the prospect that public schools will grow even weaker as money and students exit for private options. There simply aren't enough such options to absorb all the students - especially immigrant and minority children - who need better schooling. The improvement of public education remains a national priority.

Second, valid church-state concerns. Any public policy that channels tax dollars - by way of parents in the Milwaukee case - to institutions devoted to teaching not only the ABCs but religious tenets, violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Further, church-related schools taking this money are opening their doors to more interference from the state than they may now recognize.

So, encourage private philanthropists to fund whatever scholarships they can. But beware tendencies to disinvest in public education and ignore church-state concerns. History shows that road isn't nearly so bright as advocates proclaim.

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