Kathryn Lopez

How does an old-establishment, white-guy Republican beat Sen. Barack Obama, the messianic black candidate for "change"? I'll tell you how: He leads a civil rights movement.

President George W. Bush laid some of the groundwork at the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools on April 24, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

At the summit, President Bush said "providing a sound education for every child is one of the really important challenges for America." The president continued: "I happen to believe it is one of the greatest civil rights challenges. I am fully aware that in inner-city America some children are getting a good education, but a lot are consigned to inadequate schools."

And faith-based schools are key to getting many children the education they need and deserve. While touting progress made in public education in his own home state of Texas while he was governor and in the United States since No Child Left Behind was passed, the president highlighted that "Today nearly one-half of children in America's major urban school districts do not graduate on time -- one-half of our children in major urban school districts do not get out of school on time. In Detroit, one student in four makes it out of the public school system with a diploma. When schools like these fail our inner-city children, it is unfair, it's unacceptable and it is unsustainable for our country."

Which is why he who is a fan of compassion used the bully pulpit to provide a platform for a national conversation on innovative approaches to saving faith-based education in the United States. You've no doubt heard about Catholic school closings. According to the White House, between 2000 and 2006, almost 1,200 faith-based schools closed in America's inner cities. The closings have thus far affected nearly 400,000 students in the United States. President Bush calls the alarming numbers a "crisis." At the summit, he said: "They're places of learning where people are getting a good education and they're beginning to close, to the extent that 1,200 of them have closed. The impact of school closings extends far beyond the children that have to leave these classrooms. The closings place an added burden on inner-city public schools that are struggling. And these school closings impoverish our country by really denying a future of children a critical source of learning not only about how to read and write, but about social justice."

So what to do? The whole point of the summit was to put a national spotlight on innovative approaches to keep faith-based education alive and strong. The Catholic archdiocese of Memphis reopened schools that had closed with the help of $15 million in private-donor money. Ten years after seeking to reclaim a stake in the communities they had abandoned for financial reasons, 1,400 children are attending the "Jubilee" schools, with most of the students at or below the poverty line. The University of Notre Dame is an example of an institution of higher education looking to the elementary and secondary schools and providing a service with their resources: a teacher-and-principal training program, the Alliance for Catholic Education. One author went through possibilities for religious charter schools: You can't explicitly endorse a religion there, but you can accommodate religion with government funds. That may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's another creative approach to solving a real problem.

Bush shows the power of the president to lead. Not just as commander in chief. Not just signing bills into law. Sure, he's got concrete policy proposals, his Pell Grants for Kids being the most notable. He's pushing to help end the "crisis," but what he did by holding and speaking at this summit, and speaking about school choice and faith-based education being at the heart of our modern-day "civil rights" movement, was powerful. Most close to home, the summit set the stage as Congress prepares for a debate over the future of Opportunity Scholarships in the District of Columbia. But it also provided Americans with a reminder that the party of Lincoln still believes in freeing victims.

At the same time as the summit was going, Republican presumptive presidential nominee John McCain was on an "It's Time for Action Tour," visiting "forgotten places" in America. Actually, on the exact day Bush spoke to the summit, McCain toured Xavier, the only predominately black Roman Catholic university in the country, in Louisiana. This could be the start of something. Throughout the week, starting out in Selma and talking about poverty in America, there was something missing: He could have been more proactive and picked up the mantle of a modern-day civil rights leader. Obama is not talking about real solutions that could lift poverty-stricken Americans out of a cycle of dependency. Faith-based -- often Catholic -- schools offer hope to many inner-city children in America. These schools change lives. These schools could distinguish an otherwise Wonder Bread politician (albeit an American hero) from a conventional liberal propping up a preacher of hate and spouting that same old backward song of dependent despair. Sen. McCain, lead by following the civil rights leader of your party.


Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.