- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

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 hell deserve to be up there on Mount Rushmore.
His education program will go down as the equal of Franklin Roosevelts New Deal, Harry Trumans Marshall Plan and John F. Kennedys successful race for the Moon.
The cynical think hell 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 didnt put her in charge of it). Congress is ready for compromise, too, but only as long as the word "voucher" isnt mentioned. Thats too bad.
Ive been out taking informal surveys in my own neighborhood in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Washington, and Ive 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. "Its cheaper than private school tuition," she said. She wouldnt 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.
Not everyone is desperate. One lucky couple said they were fortunate because they found a new charter school and were thrilled to learn how good it is. Parents disappointed in the neighborhood school in their affluent neighborhood organized the charter school, and turned out to be better at hiring teachers and organizing a curriculum than the educationists in the school bureaucracy downtown. The school goes only through the fifth grade and theres already a waiting list for every grade, and plans for grade expansion.
These are stories of city kids of the middle class, not the deprived kids of the underclass. This is the anecdotal evidence that everyone has heard before, with variation on a single theme: A lot of public schools are rotten and if you live in neighborhoods zoned for those schools youre stuck. The only alternatives are expensive private schools, and theres a waiting list.
The underclass, as everybody knows, has it the worst. The latest study of reading skills of fourth graders, made by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows the gap widening between the best and the worst-performing students. There are lots of kids in the middle class who should be doing better, too. Only a third of the fourth graders tested nationally can read close to the third grade level, continuing the downward slide over the past eight years. Not even half of the schoolchildren in other grades can read anything appropriate to their age.
Vouchers are no panacea, but they would spur creativity and entrepreneurship. The system as it exists couldnt be much worse, though left untouched it will surely get worse. Vouchers would enable parents to shop for schools, public and private, the way they shop for bargains in groceries and clothes, and use their own tax dollars to find a better alternative. Its time, it seems to me, to think big, as big as we were thinking when we reached for the Moon.

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