- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Bush promised in his January State of Union address that he would convene a summit on faith-based schooling. Yesterday, he made good on that promise.

Officially called the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools (a mouthful if ever there were one), there are seats at several tables for the type of American-born and -bred leaders we all hope (and pray) our young people will one day become — such as Executive Vice President David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America, the Rev. Floyd Flake, president of Wilberforce University, former D.C. Mayor Tony Williams, who now is CEO of Primum Public Realty Trust, and business leaders and philanthropists.

We need to think outside the box, as the saying goes.

We need to save our children by any and every educational means necessary.

We need to do this because the institutional process of public schooling is undermining teaching and learning. For the upper classes, that’s not a problem. All they have to do is whip out the checkbook or transfer funds and, voila, their children are enrolled in the best non-public educational environments they can afford. For the middle class, most figure out what must be sacrificed on the throne of family budgeting. Then, as their children begin looking toward college, they afford themselves of every red cent that the government is willing to hand out by way of grants and of the scholarships available for certain niche demographics — as well they should.

Yet, we (Americans) don’t want poor children to have the same opportunities — and by that I mean, for example, that the Pell Grant program is secular enough for college students but should by no means be available for secondary-education students. Another example is vouchers. We give vouchers to our military veterans, and we give vouchers to poor families to supplement their housing needs. But mention vouchers that would allow poor children to attend a Catholic school or a private school and opponents act as though we’re snatching a calf away from the teat of his mom.

So, what the president said he would do, and what he reiterated yesterday, is to give poor children a chance to attend the schools of their parents’ choosing by committing his administration to the Pell Grants for Kids and other initiatives. The initiatives would grant such things as tax credits, and would be administered, as all public education programs are, by state and local governments. That’s important because federal school initiatives often are vouchsafed in local communities (think NCLB), while the most effective education policies are those that are initiated by and strongly supported by parents and other stakeholders at the local and state levels.

The Bush initiative also does a couple of other things: One, it pulls in the private sector; and it also asks us to volunteer. Regarding the latter, it’s just common sense. Whether we’re volunteering in a literacy program, mentoring on the SAT or helping a school in a DIY fix-it-up project, being inside a schoolhouse gives you a true picture of what is and is not going on with teaching and learning. As for the private sector, it can be a most effective partner — especially when the one-size-fits-all chorus raises a ruckus over unfunded or underfunded federal mandates or unions start screaming certification and teacher training.

Now, if you’re a school-choice opponent, if you’re one of those nonbelievers, then you’ve probably already veiled your heart and mind around the church-state issue, wailing about a line of demarcation that doesn’t even apply to schooling.

Mr. Bush doesn’t want to snatch tax dollars from public education coffers and start pouring them toward Catholic schools, though I understand that, with the pope having made Catholic education a hallmark of his recent visit, some critics are saying the Bush proposal has already crossed the line. But, so far as I have read, the plan is simply about faith-based education options. And while that obviously includes Catholic schools, it shouldn’t exclude Protestant, Jewish and other religious-based educational offerings.

So, if it’s OK to use a Pell Grant to attend Notre Dame or Georgetown, shouldn’t it be OK to use a Pell Grant to attend a Jewish day school or a day school that has Seventh-Day Adventist in its title?

Look, we can all become government junkies and keep believing that it’s the responsibility of Big Brother to stiffen our children’s moral spine, to teach them right from wrong, about safe sex and the like. But after experimenting on such social policies — largely at the expense of poor children since the 1960s — haven’t we learned that it doesn’t work? We confounded the problem.

Public schools for many an American merely reinforce the moral characters that are built at nourishing homes. For too many poor kids, though, nourishing homes are a luxury. Some of those children are dumped into the laps of public-school teachers who have neither the skills nor the inclination to feed their heads with knowledge, let alone acknowledge and soothe their broken souls.

There is no single solution or reform button that we (Americans) can push when it comes to public education. But it’s time we got on the same page and agree that we (Americans) need to muster the courage to educate children by any means necessary. Sometimes we need to break with “tradition” and move in another direction in order to reach success. Standing still accomplishes nothing.

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