Uninvited to the Banquet


Washington. -- If you really want to understand why we are imperiled by a crumbling system of public education, take a look at what's going on in the nation's capital.

We ought to have a public school system here that is a beacon for the rest of the nation and the world. What we've got is a system that is falling fast under the weight of racism, congressional politics, gross discrimination in financing, a greed-ridden school bureaucracy and an angry corps of teachers, most of whom long ago lost any sense of dedication to their pupils.

D.C. School Superintendent Franklin L. Smith recently announced plans to close 10 schools. Last week he said that to meet a requirement to eliminate 883 jobs by June 30, he must lay off at least 430 teachers.

The good news is supposed to be that Mr. Smith will spare teachers of mathematics and science, putting the ax mostly to teachers of English, music, social studies, business, adult education and other new "expendables."

It is one hell of a mess when a school administrator has to choose between firing a physics teacher or an English teacher. As is the case across the nation, a pathetic percentage of high school graduates here cannot really read or write. I can't imagine anyone believing that any student who can't read, write or speak well is going to become self-sustaining, let alone famous, using math or science.

Why are school administrators across America having to make such ludicrous choices? Because of budget crunches that reflect the economic discrimination, the class conflicts, the racial animosities that keep this society at terrible risk.

The schools here depend in great measure on monies provided by Congress. There isn't much real-clout pressure on Congress to provide adequate funds because, in the wake of court orders to desegregate, most whites and many affluent blacks have fled to suburbs -- some fleeing integration, others just the high tax rates in the District. Some old members of Congress are still trying to prove that "mixing the races" was a mistake, and they won't vote to fund adequately schools that mostly educate black kids.

Some congressmen want to wound these public schools so meanly that they won't budge from schemes to give federal vouchers so parents can follow some gossamer dream of getting all their children into private schools.

But put the issue of race aside. I run a scholarship program here called Project Excellence in which every high school nominates the best of its seniors for major grants to attend the best colleges in the land. Nothing is clearer to me and the other nine judges that money really matters -- that the children from the poorest regions of this predominantly-black city are shamefully deprived as compared with the children of the affluent wards. Class conflicts are as devastating within black America as they are in society at large.

The tragedy is that everyone in Washington is so busy arguing over crumbs that they can't focus on getting poor kids into the banquets at which privileged children feast on wondrous educational opportunities.

Teachers and administrators here don't even have the luxury of arguing, as they are doing in Texas and more than 25 other states, about how to equalize facilities and opportunities in all D.C. schools and classrooms.

Texas voters recently rejected a proposal to shift funds from rich districts to poor ones to equalize educational opportunities in that state's 1,048 school districts. The opponents, who called it a "Robin Hood" idea, won handily over those who called it a "share the wealth" proposal.

Still, Texas must come up with some new and fair school-financing plan, because the state's Supreme Court has said the existing system is unconstitutional.

Well, the mess we have in your nation's capital ought to be declared both unconstitutional and ungodly awful. And remember, the school closings and teacher layoffs are epidemic.

We're going to be a nation at risk, crippled by almost every public school district, until we rise above racial and ethnic passions, petty bureaucracy and personal greed, and dedicate the dollars necessary for the education of all our children.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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