School Reform Stalls

Let's hope no one even remotely contemplating suicide was watching last week's Senate debate over President Bush's education plan. It was so depressing, C-SPAN's coverage should have been sponsored by Prozac.

The facts being bandied about were bad enough -- crumbling schools, illiterate students, a nation more than ever at risk. But even more disheartening were the utterly pedestrian solutions offered from both sides of the aisle. There was nothing we haven't heard before -- nothing we haven't already tried.

Only one thing was different this time out: the dark tone of the rhetoric. "America's educational problems," warned Sen. Robert Torricelli, "point like a dagger at the heart of our national prosperity -- indeed, one day even our national security." For Sen. Ted Kennedy, the education debate was about nothing less than "the future of our country."

But while the rhetoric has been upped, the response bears no relation to either the magnitude of the crisis or the apocalyptic verbiage. The problems have gotten worse, the prospects have gotten worse, but the "solutions" have stayed the same.

Kennedy, the emblematic Democrat on this issue, accused Bush of "nickel and diming children." He remains convinced that all it will take to solve the education crisis is more money. "We know we have 10,000 failing schools today," he said. "We know that the average cost to bring those schools along and turn them around is $180,000."

He even helpfully did the math for his fellow senators -- "It would cost a total of $1.8 billion to turn around all 10,000 failing schools" -- in case any of them were like the 40 percent of American 17-year-olds who lack enough math skills to hold down a job at a manufacturing plant.

By now there should be nobody who doesn't agree that how much money we spend per pupil makes a difference. But surely there should also be nobody left who still believes that the only reason so many schools are failing is deficient funding.

On the Republican side, the panacea was more testing. "If a test focuses on basic reading, basic math and basic science," asked Sen. Jeff Sessions, "how can anyone complain if a teacher teaches to the test?"

I wonder if these federally mandated tests will include brain-teasers such as: "If a violently ill child with a fever of 103 has his temperature taken every hour on the hour, how long will it be before he feels better? A) one hour B) one day C) one week D) when the doctor finally puts down the thermometer and gives him some Tylenol." In other words, when should those in charge stop assessing the ailment and begin treating it?

When, for example, should we do something about a system that fails to reward good teachers while providing cover for incompetent ones? Of the 78,000 teachers in New York City schools, only around 300 were under review for possible dismissal. The reasons for these reviews included such charges as rape and drug abuse -- but not lousy teaching. In Los Angeles, the story is the same: 36,000 teachers, 234 firings.

In what successful business -- let alone a failing one -- would less than 1 percent of employees face review? And then only because they've run afoul of the law, not because they've failed their students.

As predictably as a school bell, every election our candidates promise to transform our schools. At the start of his second term, Bill Clinton vowed: "My number one priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world."

I guess he got distracted: U.S. 12th-graders currently rank 18th out of 21 developed countries when it comes to math and science. And, of course, Bush ran on the idea that he would "reform the system" to ensure that "no child is left behind."

There are powerful ideas and promising experiments struggling to take root amidst the fire-bombed landscape of our school system. But the weight of the status quo is so enormous, it often crushes them before they can make a real difference.

In San Francisco, for example, a charter school run by Edison that has worked miracles with the test scores of its black and Latino students is on the verge of being shut down by the board of education. Why? Just because its success is an affront to a calcified system that sees innovation as a threat to its survival.

Even a modest and ultimately imperfect initiative like vouchers for parents whose child has been in a persistently failing public school was defeated in the House Education and Workforce Committee and is no longer even part of the Senate bill.

No senator rose to point out the hypocrisy of the fact that 49 percent of Senate members with school-age children send them to private school while denying America's poor parents the same choice.

Whatever watered-down version of the education bill ends up becoming law, it promises to do nothing to make it easier for creativity and innovation to flourish in our schools. So brace yourselves for more grandstanding, more end-of-the-world rhetoric, more depressing statistics and more broken promises by the time the next education debate hits the Senate floor.

Like the old congressional saying goes, "If it's broke, don't fix it."

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