An Educational Divide

Article excerpt

The most ambitious promise George W. Bush made to us during the campaign was contained in four little words: "No child left behind." If he can deliver on that one he'll deserve to be up there on Mount Rushmore.

His education program will go down as the equal of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry Truman's Marshall Plan and John F. Kennedy's successful race for the Moon.

The cynical think he'll probably have more in common with Lyndon Johnson and his dismal War on Poverty. But the War on Poverty was born of good intentions and died of bad timing. George W.'s timing is good, and successful learning theories abound. Americans are ready for educational reform if the politicians can be open to the notion that different ideas work for different kinds of problems.

It helps him that Laura the Librarian shares his ambition (and it helps even more that he didn't put her in charge of it). Congress is ready for compromise, too, but only as long as the word "voucher" isn't mentioned. That's too bad.

I've been out taking informal surveys in my own neighborhood in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Washington, and I've learned that, if all politics is local, vouchers make good local politics.

One mother told me how she slept three nights in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in front of the public elementary school where she wanted to enroll her son in kindergarten. She lives on the wrong side of the school district boundary and camped out with other parents to qualify for one of the spaces left over, if any.

Another mother told me that she had put her home up for sale so that she could buy a smaller one in a more expensive neighborhood with a better public school. "It's cheaper than private school tuition," she said. She wouldn't consider sending her daughter to the junior high school zoned for the neighborhood where she now lives.

Still another mom asked, perhaps joking, whether I knew anyone who would sell her an imaginary lease on an apartment in a ZIP code with a passable public school. Another mother and father are actually contemplating the actual rental of an apartment in the neighborhood with the good public school because their spacious house, a few blocks away, is in a zone with a bad school. …