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Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2001 / 7 Shevat, 5761

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

The missing answer

Bush is wisely making schools a key part of urban revival --
GEORGE W. BUSH'S education reform is receiving such a warm bipartisan reception that it's worth stepping back to see what a bold change in policy it represents and how it attacks the one major obstacle to the revival of the central cities that has been one of the happy trends of the 1990s.

Education reform will affect the entire country. But Bush's target, and that of many others, is obviously the central cities: His goal is to "leave no child behind," and in so many inner-city schools almost every child is left behind. It need not be so. In the 1990s, central cities improved in ways long thought impossible. As Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio argue in their recent Comeback Cities, "Cities can be–and increasingly are being–made more livable, more attractive to businesses and investors, and more inviting to people of various levels of income."

What's been happening? Community development groups have built and renovated housing, formed block watches, and recruited businesses. Retailers have discovered that money can be made in low-income central cities just as Wal-Mart discovered that money can be made in low-income small towns. Lenders have discovered that extending credit can pay in core cities as well as in suburbs. The enormous drop in crime has made life more pleasant and has increased the value of housing and commercial real estate in what are now low-crime neighborhoods. Welfare reform and demolition of housing projects are replacing pathologies caused by well-meaning federal programs with incentives to healthy behaviors. There remains one "final frontier of inner-city revitalization," Grogan and Proscio say: Education. "All the other incipient positive trends will fall short of their potential if city schools continue to push huge numbers of working- and middle-class families out of the city."

Shift in thinking. Enter the Bush education bill. It is a profound change from federal policy since the first aid-to-education act in 1965. In the last major revision, in 1994, Democrats heading House and Senate committees retained the bill's multiple micromanaging programs and passed what they called "opportunity-to-learn standards"–in fact, just a label for pumping more money into the system. Anyone voting "No" was labeled antieducation.

The old bill measured inputs; Bush would measure outputs, by requiring that states test students annually and that consequences follow when students fail to meet standards. This is not new. Most of the states have required tests and have adopted standards of some sort, though as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has shown, those standards are often laughably low and even then some parents are demanding they be lowered. Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Evan Bayh have sponsored a similar bill that doesn't include Bush's provision granting vouchers to parents of children in schools that have been failing for three years. Seven years ago, Democrats refused to hold schools accountable and sparked no lively political argument. This year, there is no lively political argument against Bush's and others' determination to hold schools accountable. Polite comments came even from Sen. Edward Kennedy, who went so far as to join Bush at an inner-city Washington school last Thursday.

This is just another instance of the public sector catching up with changes in the private sector. As Diane Ravitch points out in her recent book Left Back, since the days of John Dewey at Columbia Teachers College in the 1920s, American education schools have unleashed "unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools." They hate memorization, testing, and accountability, and want to produce self-esteem. They created a system in which no one–principals, teachers, students–is held accountable. This came as the larger society was moving in the same direction. Buffeted by Depression and war, and then underwritten by postwar prosperity, America became a country in which big government, big business, and big labor micromanaged employees and promised security in return.

Today, the larger society is changing again. Sluggish big-government programs, like welfare, are reformed. Sluggish big business can no longer guarantee security, and growth comes from a more supple, creative private sector. CEOs and workers are held accountable by the market. Public school systems and teachers unions for years insulated themselves and their students from accountability. But there is increasing dissatisfaction with their performance. Americans scrambling to meet standards can't understand why teachers and students shouldn't do so too.

The biggest impact will be felt in the places where the schools have performed the poorest: the central cities. George W. Bush's insistence that every child can learn strikes squarely at the fatalism that has infected the central cities–an infection that, Comeback Cities teaches, is mostly on the wane. There was never any reason central cities had to have abandoned neighborhoods, empty storefronts, high crime rates, dangerous housing projects, and mothers demoralized by welfare. Now, Bush is proclaiming, they don't have to have bad schools either.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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01/02/01: President-elect Bush aims to make friends, one at a time
12/18/00: Red Queen rules
12/04/00: Lies and statistics
11/28/00: Thou shalt not steal
11/14/00: How Bush can lead
10/31/00: Puzzled by the state poll results? So are the candidates
10/18/00: When talk is cheap
10/03/00: The death of Big Media
09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone