Education, like everything else at the mercy of Congress, gets shot full of holes in the crossfire of politics, the target of both left and right.
The most innovative and radical part of the president's initial proposal rolls toward enactment slowly, very slowly. That's the part about empowering parents to take their children out of failing public schools, with $1,500 of their own taxpayer money to follow their children into private schools. The House stripped it out after the Senate eviscerated it, leaving only a little money for extra tutoring.
Opponents of vouchers say it will take money out of the public school system. Duh. What kind of investor keeps pouring money into a product that grows shabbier by the year? Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York has what may be a very bright idea for the schools in his city: He suggests abolishing the Board of Education.
Vouchers are really the only way to get rid of poorly producing schools, but George Bush needs a better Congress than this one to do it. Five of his own Republicans voted with 22 Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee to eliminate vouchers, and that was margin enough to sink vouchers.
If the liberals are giving him trouble - and they are - the conservatives are guilty of sabotaging his initiative to test every child from the third grade through the eighth grade. How else could we determine which school is failing which students? The conservative fear that testing (without vouchers) will lead to an Official Government Curriculum seems a stretch. It shouldn't be all that hard to agree on what children in each grade ought to know about reading and math. Home-schooled children are doing very well on the national tests required for college admission.
Testing is the best method we've got to make schools accountable to their students. The administration of the tests, of course, should be monitored closely so that the emphasis is on basics and not the process of how to take a test.
The conservatives had a good idea several years ago, to abolish the Department of Education to clear that obstacle to learning, but we lost that battle. Now with a conservative in the White House, it's time to use his power and bully pulpit to get change that will benefit kids and not simply to throw more money at lavish building programs or to pay for baby-sitting in after-school programs. (There's a legitimate role for academic after-school programs, but that's a different matter.)
The rock-bottom requirement is that every child must learn to read - teaching them that much shouldn't be difficult. One of the most frightening problems in America today is the way the larger culture undercuts that motivation. If the printing press ushered in a revolutionary way to educate the masses, mindless television and videos are creating an overwhelming approach to learning, captured in that much-quoted phrase of Marshall McLuhan: "The medium is the message."
McLuhan couldn't have known how prescient he was. Techniques and presentation have become more important than substantive knowledge, even among the elites. Nearly every kind of museum - art, religious, historical, scientific - now appeals to short attention spans and participatory exhibitions with (in many cases) dumbed-down content.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of our premier museums, offers fashion retrospectives and wardrobes of first ladies. In advertising its current show, "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," the museum reminds us that it was made by possible by L'Oreal, with additional support provided by Conde Nast. Not long ago, the Guggenheim Museum put on an exhibition of motorcycles. Much of the video art installed in fine art museums is more entertainment than art.
Many museums are becoming like sets for "The Lion King," with all the intellectual gravitas of Disney World. High-tech approaches create an interactive atmosphere aimed at "experiencing" information, not absorbing and understanding it. With all those loud bells and shrieking whistles, the medium becomes the only message. Just like our modern public schools.