Fix families first, then the schools


WILL THE LAST family to leave public schools please turn out the lights?

It is the election season, and this campaign's list of hollow promises is topped by pledges from the candidates to improve public schools or give parents the money to go elsewhere.

In 1992, it was the economy, stupid. This time around, it is education, stupid. The economy is robust, so the presidential candidates are looking for that other tender spot on the psyche of the American voter. If it isn't the paycheck, it has got to be the kids.

By any standard, things aren't going well in American schools.

The buildings are crumbling, and the teachers are retiring. There is no room for new students, and there are fewer teachers qualified to teach them.

Our students don't measure up to their international counterparts in any subject area, except perhaps interscholastic sports, which does not bode well for our place in the global economy.

Most schools are hopelessly behind in getting, and figuring out how to use, computers. Yet just about every homework assignment and every job requires one.

And our schools are not safe. Not just poverty-ridden, inner-city schools but, as Paducah, Ky., and Littleton, Colo., demonstrated to our horror, small-town schools and prosperous mega-schools. The randomness and inexplicability of gunplay and murder have made every school feel vulnerable.

So the presidential candidates are playing to our fear for our children's immediate safety and our desire for their ultimate success by competing to see who can apply the most grease for our exit from public schools.

Republican Sen. John McCain has called for a three-year, $5.4 billion test run of a school voucher program. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has recommended $1,500 scholarships for children in failing schools, which can be used for private schooling. He and McCain also favor letting parents deposit money in tax-free accounts to pay for private school tuition.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley says he is watching experiments in Cleveland and Milwaukee to see if they have the desired impact of improving public schools, but he has supported vouchers in the past.

Publisher Steve Forbes is in favor of sending federal block grants to communities and letting the parents choose the form of education for their children. Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan are in favor of using federal money to help parents pay for private schooling.

All the candidates are for some kind of federal support for parents to send their children to private schools, except Al Gore, who says he'd give public education some unspecified amount of time to clean up its act before giving parents the money to leave. The two big teachers unions have rewarded his watchful approach with their endorsements.

The idea of school vouchers is based on the notion that if you apply free-market principles to education, there will be an economic incentive for the failing schools to improve. If they do not, their students would take their per capita funding of about $6,600 and spend it at a nearby private school.

But this presumes that it is the schools that are failing the students. I am not convinced that is where the problems with education in the country originate.

I believe it is the parents who are failing the students.

How else can you explain the success stories that occur in even those most dreadful public schools? And why is it that in schools with mixed populations, academic success divides itself almost exactly along socio-economic lines? How do you explain the fact that kids who come from intact families of even the most modest means generally do better than children from single-parent homes, regardless of the school?

And it is not just the poor test scores of these kids that scares parents away from public schools. It is the fact that these same kids, by the time they get to middle school, are angry and defeated, and it shows in their behavior.

A parent might be willing to enroll the child in a school where other children are not performing well, believing, quite correctly, that it has little bearing on how their own child will perform given the proper support. But no parent wants to send a child to school where the failing children are also violent.

The idea of vouchers, once a platform plank of ultra-conservatives, is creeping into general acceptance, even among liberals, because it is gaining support among the African-American and Hispanic families whose children are trapped in dangerous schools.

It is becoming easier to accept the principles behind vouchers -- that they empower parents and stimulate improvement in public schools by creating competition for the education dollar -- because it is so clear that government-imposed standards, such as more and more tests and assessments, aren't working.

But a school, public or private, is 90 percent students and 10 percent faculty and administration. And those students are the incarnation of their family life.

If their parents have created an emotionally stable environment at home with no shortages of food and clothing, if they value the idea of education and have high expectations for their children's academic success, if they provide a quiet, well-lighted place for homework and require its completion, if they can be positive and encouraging instead of angry and abusive when their children hit rough spots, if they can paint a verbal picture for their children of how much better life can be with an education, then the inadequacies of the school they attend shrink to insignificance.

I understand that the school day represents an enormous chunk of a child's waking hours, and there is no doubt that the effect of teachers, administrators and classmates on that child can be enormous. But the day starts and ends at home, where those lessons and those experiences are either reinforced or contradicted.

My kids did just fine in public schools that have been classified as "at risk." And it is because, to their everlasting aggravation, of who their parents are: A couple of over-involved grown-ups who live under the same roof, earn a decent wage and do a reasonable job of keeping their lives comfortable and secure.

The problem with public education begins with the parents, though certainly schools themselves cannot remain blameless.

And if you can't give a child a voucher that changes his family life, changing his school isn't going to do much good.

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