Now, class, who knows the answer to THIS problem?


Public education, we keep hearing, is in crisis. Nobody seems to dispute that notion anymore.

Read the headlines. Too many smart kids are bored. Too many poor kids drop out. Grades are inflated. And nobody can find Azerbaijan on a map.

We can agree on the problems. Agreement on possible solutions comes a little harder. One often-discussed remedy made it onto the ballot in California last week. It's called the voucher system.

You've heard of it, right? Presently, a local government spends X amount per student per year on public schooling. Under the voucher system, the government would offer parents the opportunity to use part of that amount toward paying for private education.

The idea is, through greater choice, to create competition. In other words, once kids start leaving the public system, school officials -- with their franchise now endangered -- will be forced to improve their product in order to get the students back and save their jobs.

As theory, it sounded as dumb to Californians as it does to you. Seven out of 10 -- that's 70 percent for you school kids -- voted against it.

The plan was doomed once it was explained that there were already 500,000 students in private schools in California, meaning that the government, which would have paid $2,600 for each voucher, was looking at a billion-dollar giveaway.

Is this school reform or another subsidy for the upper-middle class?

Actually, it's a phony-baloney remedy from those who think the way to save public education is to destroy it. You can look at Baltimore and see the flaws.

Baltimore is top-heavy with elite independent schools. It has one of the nation's largest Catholic school systems. There is the usual smattering of other private and religious schools. For tens of thousands of Baltimore students, private education is already a real alternative.

And the effect on the city's schools?

You know the effect. The school system is staggering under the weight of those problems common to most urban systems. It isn't competition that fuels Baltimore schools. It is survival. Dropout rates are staggering. In most of the standards set by the state for school achievement, Baltimore ranks near the bottom.

The educational advantages of private schools are obvious. Classes tend to be smaller. Parents tend to be more involved. Teachers are no better, but they are less harried. Elite schools are selective. And most private schools are unwilling or unable to take great numbers of students with, as they're now called, special needs.

Take as an example the case of the 8-year-old who punched "Officer Friendly" the other day. If he were in a private school, he might well be expelled -- and sent back to the public schools, which cannot give up on an 8-year-old.

In any school system, urban or suburban, the vouchers would make it easier to abandon systems that are asked to be all things to all students. Do we really want to be in the business of encouraging even more good students to leave the public schools? Haven't enough left already?

Schools must change. Every school system knows that. In a Los Angeles Times poll following the voucher defeat, only 1 percent of those who voted against the vouchers said they were satisfied with the school system.

And change is coming. Look around you. Sometimes, the change is painful, as the recent experience in Baltimore County has proven. Sometimes, it can be radical, as in Baltimore'e experiment with Tesseract, in which a private company runs a public school.

In Minneapolis, officials just gave over their entire system to a private company, finding the best way to fight the bureaucracy is to sidestep it. These companies bring with them not only new ideas but the ability to implement them quickly.

New ideas are great, for problems have never been tougher. We ask so much of our schools, which have become society's dumping ground. We ask teachers to fill in for absentee parents and to teach kids that books are more valid than TV. Parents leave the TV on for six hours a day and wonder why their kids fail.

Meanwhile, educators are looking for answers. Choice is great, especially if it means more magnet schools. Expand site-based management, which puts parents in a position of real authority. Getting parents involved is the most important step. Fire bureaucrats if they block progress. Find the money for more computers and fewer students per classroom. Give teachers more training and more responsibility. And don't expect any of it to be easy.

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