Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2003 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Michael Graham

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Don't bother | "To be very candid with you, I just don't want to be bothered with it." — D.C. Superintendent of Schools Paul L. Vance, on why he was resigning his post just as the debate over vouchers and other fundamental reforms is coming to a head.

Everything you need to know about why America's horrible, failing, embarrassing, life-destroying government-run school system was spoken in a single phrase: "I just don't want to be bothered with it."

This from one of the highest-paid and most highly respected school administrators in America — which points up just how lousy and apathetic the competition must be. Paul Vance, who has spent years re-shuffling the deckchairs on the educational Titanic known as the D.C. school system — is leaving just as true reforms like vouchers loom on the horizon.

Now that there's a chance to rescue desperate children from our nation's worst schools, he's decided to get out. An administrator who had time for every fashionable education fad and teacher's union scam suddenly "can't be bothered" now that it really matters.

This cavalier comment has stuck in my craw all week. The nerve, the gall of a man who year after year sent children to their education doom without a twitch, suddenly walking away in the face of the mere prospect of hope.

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That's what the guards of the public-school gulags cannot abide: Hope. The only defense for the current crummy system is to reject the idea that there's any other acceptable system.

Because any choice would be a better choice.

I could roll through the usual litany of statistics — how 70% of American students are not performing at grade level, how 40% of students in some southern states will drop out, how kids in war-torn Cyprus kick our algebraic butts, etc., etc. But the statistics have lost their power.

In the same story where Paul Vance sighed about being bothered, the reporter noted in passing that there are 65,000 students in the D.C. system. In the next paragraph, in an unrelated item, the reporter casually mentioned that the operating budget for the D.C. schools is $920 million.

Now I've only got a Pelion High School education, but I whipped out an abacus and did me some cipherin' and--correct me if I'm wrong--that works out to $14, 153 tax dollars for every poorly-educated child in that system.

Let me repeat: Fourteen-stinkin'-thousand dollars.

How does that happen? Who lets this go on? Nobody would put up with this outrageous combination of high prices and low quality in any other area of their lives.

If this was their doctor, they'd fire him, if it were their lawyer, they'd sue. If your property taxes were an investment and the schools a corporation, they'd be Enron and Paul Vance would be sharing a cell with Ken Lay.

And still, as they fail again and again, the bureaucrats brush off concerned parents and determined reformers with an eye-rolling, "Please, I can't be bothered."

It's hard for me to see people like Mr. Vance and other defenders of the government-run school system as anything other than evil hypocrites. That's strong language, I know, and I don't use it lightly. But what else do you call a group of people who demand that children accept a level of incompetent service they would never accept themselves, and receive it via a system (a mandated government monopoly) they would not tolerate in any other aspect of their lives?

If government-run schools are so good, then why isn't the NEA pushing for a government-run grocery store chain where your groceries are chosen for you based solely on your age and address--and you're required to pay for them whether you shop there or not? If it makes sense for the government to pick my daughter's teacher and curriculum with no input from me whatsoever, then shouldn't they pick her doctor and dentist and after-school activity, too? I've got my kid in karate class — maybe I should have asked my school board member first?

And I use the word "evil" because I don't know how else to describe the heart it takes to force young, black kids to attend schools you know are dangerous and inadequate, and where the education they receive will limit the potential of their entire lives. And to do so when you know there are private and parochial schools in the same communities that cost less and could transform those lives forever — and then still refuse to let these students escape…if there's a better word than "evil," it doesn't come to mind.

Why do these "for the children" phonies always walk away when the discussion turns to empowering parents? Why won't they at least admit that the current system keeps failing?

Why? Because educational freedom would take away the bureaucrats' power and control. It would send the money to someone else. It could point up public school incompetence. So what if it would also mean decent education for an entire generation of American children?

Sorry. They can't be bothered.

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.


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05/28/03: A few small reparations
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© 2003, Michael Graham