For decades, the American public-school system served as a great equalizer. In the schools, children from different social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds mixed and learned common values, forging a common American identity.
The schools had their problems, of course. The worst was frequent racial segregation. Still, most public-school children received an adequate education.
Sadly, in the last two decades, this has too often ceased to be the case. In some large cities, the schools have become captives of political patronage, corruption, and union featherbedding. Attempts to integrate schools by busing have sent whites fleeing to suburbs or private academies, leaving many poor and minority students stuck in badly funded, badly run, and badly taught schools. Teaching of basic subjects such as reading, English grammar, and arithmetic has sometimes fallen prey to half-baked experiments foisted on parents by an education establishment seemingly accountable to no one. Parental wishes have frequently been swept aside by an attitude that teachers and administrators always know what is best. The federal government has increasingly meddled in ways that have no constitutional justification.
The resulting decline is well documented. Although there are some recent glimmers of improvement, student performance and test scores have sunk to unacceptable levels. Students who cannot even read are promoted and sometimes graduate.
This evaluation, of course, does not apply to all public schools. Many, especially in the wealthier suburbs, continue to provide an education on a par with the poshest private academy. But for too many parents and children, especially in the nation's largest cities, the analysis holds true.
So it was good that Bob Dole raised the education issue last week. It would be even better if it became a theme of the '96 campaign, for the education of America's children is one of the most important things government does.
Harking back to the postwar GI Bill, Mr. Dole proposed a $2.5 billion "opportunity scholarship" program that would allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice, including a parochial school. Low- and middle-income students would get $1,000 for elementary school and $1,500 for high school. This, he says, would level the playing field between poorer students and those who can afford private schools. States would administer the grants and would have to match the federal funds.
President Clinton supports parental choice among public schools, but opposes giving tax money to private schools. Teachers' unions oppose it as well, charging it would drain money away from public education.
Both candidates are partly right. Dole knows that to break administrative and union strangleholds and introduce fresh ideas into public schools, competition is needed. Some has already begun: Charter schools, though fought tooth and nail by the unions, are already showing promise; magnet schools within public-school systems are helping inner-city students break out of the cycle of mediocrity; the home-schooling movement continues to grow, due to the tenacity of its supporters. Beneficial effects on public schools are already visible.
But more is needed. A voucher or scholarship program allowing students to attend secular private schools should be tried in a few states. Public money, however, should not be used to finance education at the schools run by many of America's varied religious denominations.
Such a plan need not drain public schools of students or funding. Competition should force administrators and teachers across the nation to consider restructuring and rebuilding public education to restore confidence in public schools. This will mean an end to automatic tenure; paying teachers on merit and not for time served; and a rethinking of teacher-certification requirements and university education departments. It will mean a far more effective use of the huge amount of money already being poured into public schools with insufficient results. It will mean a deeper appreciation of parental concerns about curriculum and teaching methods.
School reform should also mean an end to most federal mandates and to the Department of Education. The Constitution does not assign the federal government this responsibility, and federal requirements for special-needs education, failed bilingual-education, and other programs are costing local districts millions of dollars. The federal government has an important role to play as a clearing house for education ideas, in research, and in assisting states to set up more effective schools. But those tasks can be done by a reconstituted US Office of Education in a restored Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Mr. Clinton is right on the church-state issue and on continuing federal financial aid to schools for building repairs. His proposed $1,500 income-tax credit for the first two years of college also has merit.
Education will benefit from a campaign airing of the issues. It sure beats arguing over the Pledge of Allegiance.