The Senate has joined the House in passing legislation to set up tax-free educational savings accounts. Proponents say these accounts will give many American youngsters access to better primary and secondary schooling.
That end is laudable, but the means are problematic. Critics point out, correctly, that many low- and moderate-income families don't have the extra cash to take advantage of the program.
But beyond the economics, do these accounts represent a move toward government aid, however indirect, for private and parochial education? Do they rest, moreover, on a faulty premise - namely, that public education is such a dismal failure everywhere that people must be given other options?
The answer to the first question is "yes." Unlike voucher plans, which clearly transfer public dollars to private, often church-related schooling, tax incentives only tend in that direction. But tax-free school accounts would have the government nudging people to choose private education, at an estimated cost to the federal Treasury of $1.6 billion over 10 years.
Many backers of this bill support another piece of legislation before Congress - to allow the District of Columbia to start a voucher program. The rationale is to give parents and children a way out of the district's poorly maintained, academically deficient public schools. But that exit, into the limited number of nearby private and parochial schools, would only bring an even more precipitate decline in public education in the capital.
Which returns us to that second question. Just how bad are public schools throughout the US? The answers are as varied as the places Americans live. In many urban centers (even booming ones) and in many poor rural areas, schools are struggling. In all too many cases individual schools rate only a D or F grade. Resources are sparse, teacher training is poor, and students often come from homes and neighborhoods beset by poverty and violence. Even relatively well-off communities can face educational problems. Lack of motivation, drug abuse, family settings antagonistic to reading and learning - these exist in the suburbs too.
The country is in its second decade of education reform, aimed at upgrading the public schools. What has this movement accomplished? Broad, countrywide statistics can be hard to come by, but positive trends exist: Standardized test scores are up slightly over the last 25 years, drop-out rates are down generally, and, perhaps most telling, high school students are taking more demanding courses than they were a decade ago.
The upshot? Overall, public education is not on the skids. Good teachers and good schools exist in every state and in countless communities. But, after two decades of effort, more should be expected. Bad situations - from crumbling buildings to various degrees of academic meltdown - warrant emergency efforts locally, and federal help should be available. (The president's proposal to underwrite $22 billion in bonds to renovate schools is a reasonable investment, but it's languishing in Congress.)
School reform may never be finished. Upgrading public education for a constantly changing mix of students, and a constantly evolving job market, is a perennial priority. It's an indispensable ingredient in the American melting pot.
Programs that spur improvement by enhancing choice and competition within the public arena - such as the charter school movement - are positive options. (We're glad to note that charter schools are one incentive program that impatient conservatives in Congress and President Clinton agree on.) But broad approaches that shift resources and reform efforts away from public education are not sound options - not least because they open the door to constitutionally doubtful state support for religious schools.