WASHINGTON — The times they are a changing. That at least was the message.
Standing on a stage in Little Rock, George W. Bush announced Friday that he likes public education. He believes in it. He wants to improve it. In fact, being that he is the "reformer with results," he wants to reform it.
"There is a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority," he said, and he wants to fix that. The message is that George W. is a different kind of Republican. While the GOP House wanted to disband the Department of Education, W. believes the federal government not only needs a role in what is clearly a vital issue, he is making education one of his many campaign cornerstones.
This, of course, should be reason to cheer for the kids in public schools. With Al Gore also supporting "reforms" in education, whoever wins this thing in the fall will be dedicated to improving the children's educational lot. Great news, right? Not exactly. The federal government promising to reform education is a lot like the utility outfielder on your favorite baseball team promising a championship: nice to hear, but in the end platitudes.
All told, the federal government's contribution to K-12 public education in 1995-96 (the latest numbers available) made up about 6.6 percent of the total. Want more good news? That figure is actually down from 1979-80, when the government put in about 9.8 percent of the total.
Of course, it goes against all Republican dogma to call for seriously increasing this money. Even as W. calls for change at the federal level, he keeps throwing in caveats about how education is really a local and state issue. This is obviously true. But no one seems able to explain why the federal government can't simply send more money to the state and local authorities where all those smart, nonbureaucratic types can spend it wisely.
What the W. camp will likely keep falling back on in this debate is that money isn't the solution. And even though it does seem to be the solution for other problems the candidate has identified - such as improving the military - there's something of a point here. Education, after all, does begin in the home with a family that cares about learning.
The only problem is the "reform" proposals emanating from Austin don't really hold a whole lot of promise for "results."
Some of W.'s many bold reforms include "moving Head Start from the Department of Education to emphasize a renewed focus on education preparedness" and "increased and focused research to determine what works in educating children."
It's safe to say neither of these would fall into the earth-shaking reform category. Bush, however, does have one major change to propose. A Bush administration will require all districts to test students every year and then, armed with those results, it will determine whether the schools will keep their federal funding. If a school loses its funding, the money would be given directly to the parents to help them send their children where they wanted.
This is the kind of school-voucher, accountability talk often a big winner with voters. Vouchers aren't necessarily a bad idea, but even on its face, there are two major problems with his idea.
First, it relies on the GOP's let's-make-everything-market-based approach to problems. While we all now bow to the power of capitalism and the Dow's performance, the truth is financial incentives work well in some areas and not so well in others. If McDonald's, for instance, is financially penalized by patrons for bad-tasting burgers, it may change how it prepares burgers to get people back. Who knows, it might even succeed.
But schools aren't burger joints. They have to serve all comers, not just those seeking their product. And the sad truth is schools in poor areas often deal with kids from homes that don't see education as a priority.
Bush's idea - that you can improve schools simply by withholding money - ironically goes against that key bit of GOP dogma about how parents are the most important educators. The best a school can do is build on what's in the home. If there isn't an interest in education, the school is at a disadvantage.
And the second big problem? That goes right back to Washington's involvement in the issue. As long as the federal government provides about 7 percent of the money for a child's education, how much are those vouchers Bush wants to give out really going to be worth anyway?
About the same as the election rhetoric around the education issue. Not much.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society