- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Meet Jane Doe, a ninth-grader in D.C. Public Schools. The average age for ninth-graders is 14. Jane is 17, and her long, hot summer has already begun because the “system” cannot handle Jane.

Use Jane Doe as your point of reference as you read and hear Barack Obama and John McCain discuss their education platforms. Remember Jane when unions and so-called education advocates talk about where your local, state and federal education dollars should and should not go.

One-size-fits-all traditional schools are not designed to benefit Jane Doe. They are deliberately designed for students to move in sync, in lock-step along a general academic track that is ostensibly designed for every student to matriculate to college. We know this system does not work. Indeed, the 1983 report “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” warned us that while America - not blacks or Hispanics, or rural youth or inner-city kids, but America - “can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Are we heeding that warning? Just this spring, leaders of America’s top three communities (academics, businesses and research) wrote to both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House urging funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Where does Jane fit in? When there is a Jane in the midst of that mediocrity, she becomes a pawn in the hands of teachers - whose hands are tied. Teachers either push her ahead using social promotion hocus-pocus or they simply kick her out of school. Either way, the odds of Jane becoming a productive adult, a responsible parent or spouse are not in her favor. The odds are more likely that she will get “caught up” in the cycle of dependency or the criminal justice system.

The next Condi Rice or Eleanor Holmes Norton? Forget about it. That is unlikely for Jane Doe because:

* Typical 10th-graders, 15-year-olds, rank 28th out of their counterparts in 40 countries in math and 19th among the 40 countries in science.

* Six million middle- and high-school students read significantly below their grade level.

* One-in-three college freshman have to take remedial science and math instruction.

Where else does Jane fit it? The America’s Promise Alliance reports that every 26 seconds one of our students drops out of high school. Repeat: every 26 seconds. “That adds up,” the Alliance says, “to more than 1.1 million students per year.” That is too many Jane (and John) Does.

For Jane and countless others, their circumstances had nothing to do with learning abilities and everything to do with the misfortunes of family life. In Jane’s case, her family life left her feeling that her most important tool in life was her cell phone. Whether in class or not, Jane would not part with her cell phone. That her teachers ignored the fact that she replaced pencil, paper and textbooks with a cell phone re-inforced Jane’s mistaken belief that all is right with the world as long as she held onto that cell phone. When she was on the verge of being expelled because of her orneriness, I beckoned her aside and asked, “You don’t really think that cell phone is more important than getting an education, do you?” Her long silence eventually gave way to a teary explanation about her home life. Nobody, Jane said, had ever cared enough to ask.

Some politicians are of the mind that all we need to do is pour more money into guiding the Janes of the world. But money is not the issue. Traditional school “systems” have no effective solutions to work with students like Jane.

Charter schools, one of the most promising educational opportunities to spring from partially heeding the “A Nation At Risk” warning, generally operate outside such “systems.” Charters receive public funding, but, unlike traditional public schools, are usually self-conscious enough to deal with the whole child.

There are lots of former Jane Does who attend charter schools, and their parents and instructors, when the media engage them, are eager to say why they not only chose a charter school but why their once-floundering children are becoming eager to learn and to prove themselves academically. (The Wall Street Journal this week featured one such D.C. charter school.)

If it weren’t for charter schools and vouchers, New Orleans, whose school system has yet to fully recover from the twin hurricanes in 2005, would be in no position to educate its children.

Yet, despite the good news that surrounds school choice, Beltway politics still motivate many of our elected leaders to block the schoolhouse doors.

That lion on the left, Sen. Ted Kennedy, took considerable heat when a national voucher program that includes New Orleans and D.C. passed Congress. The roar now is to renege on the children. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other congressional Democrats are right now coalescing to again block academic opportunities for the Jane Does. They want to repeal vouchers. (Shame on them.) There is no difference between a segregationist like George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama and the bluest of blue Democrats snatching the tuition for schooling from the hands of poor parents.

Democrats are smelling themselves again, Old School Southerners might say. (And make no mistake, George Wallace, rest his soul, was a Democrat through and through.) Whether Democrats say they are fired up because of Jane Doe (which isn’t her real name, of course) or despite her is insignificant at this juncture. The bottom line is if they succeed in reversing strides of the school-choice movement, Jane Doe will always be at risk and America will remain a nation at risk.

The failure of conscience leads to unintended consequences.

Deborah Simmons is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. dsimmons@ washingtontimes.com

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