Winning the education war

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Oct 20, 2000 12:00 AM
Once again, Bush won the debate over the issue that matters most to undecided voters -- and arguably to the future of this country -- education. The question that launched the debate, from Angie Pettig, was: How would you hold parents accountable, as well as schools, for student performance?

Funny thing: Bush had an answer and Gore had none. Of course the president of the United States can't make sure all parents love their kids and do right by them. But he can propose legislation that would protect teachers from lawsuits and threats of lawsuits when they try to discipline unruly kids. Would the tort lawyers let Gore get away with that? Schools, Bush went on to hammer home, should be held accountable for student performance, measured in every grade, not just every four years. Head Start should teach phonics, so poor kids come to school prepared. When schools consistently failed to teach, the federal government would stop routinely subsidizing failure. Federal money is ultimately supposed to help students, not fund systems that don't or can't teach. "I also believe that we need to say to people that if you cannot meet standards, there has to be a consequence. We can't continue to shuffle children through school. And one of the consequences is to allow parents to have different choices."

From ending "the soft bigotry of low expectations" to his promise to "leave no child behind," Gov. Bush has put forth a consistent plan of action to deal with the worst of the worst of the school crises in America: children trapped in decaying, dangerous, decrepit schools no middle-class mama would leave her babies in for a day. Bush has a record in Texas of improving the education of minority kids more than has been done in just about any other state.

Gore? On education, Gore is the one with the platitudes and no plan. A hundred thousand new teachers? How do you make sure they make it to the classrooms that need them instead of ending up squirreled in the bureaucratic bowels, filling out the paperwork the federal government demands? Even if the money actually produced 100,000 more teachers before blackboards, how much would that reduce class size? According to the Census Bureau, there are close to 3 million public school teachers. Increasing the number of teachers by 3 percent is going to do what exactly? Especially since the teachers are unlikely to end up where they are most needed, if the 100,000 new cops venture is any guide. A Heritage Foundation study suggests most of those cops flowed into politically well-connected, low-crime areas. Then there is the ludicrous suggestion that Al Gore is going to go charging into failing schools with turnaround teams. Washington, D.C., is going to run your kids' grade school? Get real, Al.

And Gore's attack on what he called "vouchers" is similarly misinformed. Bush does not propose a full-scale voucher plan (I wish he would). Instead, his plan might be better called "emergency vouchers" that reassign federal poverty money from persistently failing schools to parents. Bush's plan would "drain more money" out of the public schools, Gore charged in a well-worn attack that ignores a the iron law of bureaucracy: When educrats are faced with losing money if they fail, suddenly they find new ways to succeed. My guess is that a Bush administration will hand out very few new vouchers: Most schools faced with a cutoff of funds will find ways to bring phonics into the classroom, focus on academic skills, restore order, get rid of the minority of teachers who can't teach. The end result? More poor and minority kids in schools that work.

Remind me what liberals don't like about that again?