Who will repair schools?

DESPITE an intense focus on education by both presidential candidates, schools remain mostly a local concern, and should be. Key decisions and all but a fraction of education money come from state and local taxpayers.

But as Republican challenger George W. Bush advocates both local control and an increase in federal education spending, the national discussion is shifting. The question is less whether to spend, than how and where.

Adding to this debate is a perennial Clinton administration request for billions in federal money to help repair decrepit schools. And the Education Department has issued a report detailing a tremendous growth in school enrollment well into the next century.

More students, both the grandchildren of baby boomers and the children of new immigrants, will put added pressures on schoolhouses, particularly in the South and West. Substandard temporary classrooms are already common. Heating and cooling systems are often inadequate. So a good case can be made for passing the administration bill, which has twice been defeated by Republicans in Congress leery of telling local districts they must spend the money on buildings, versus other needs. Given the politics of the moment, with Republicans wanting education credentials no less than Democrats, the prospects for passage this year are good.

But as the school-growth numbers suggest, this is a time for looking further down the road. Federal inroads into education are rarely as simple in practice as they seem in concept. The building-repair program, for example, will face tangles over which of the country's thousands of schools get the help. Some regions, where school populations are actually falling, may not get anything - especially if their representatives in Congress are on the low end of the political totem pole.

And if the money comes with federal specifications about how it's to be spent, things get even more tangled.

The candidates are right to highlight a national need, but the solution does not always need to be a federal one. If voters want better schools, the local school board or state legislator is just a phone call away.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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