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If you consider only his recent song and dance about poor kids and federal education funding, you might conclude that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the best friend that needy children ever had. But, as another song says, he plans to kill poor youngsters with "kindness" by destroying "failed" public schools and allowing the kids to "escape" with $1,500 each in federal funds.

This, according to Bush, would allow poor minority children to escape "discrimination" and enroll in private, charter or some other kind of school, and then to test at the same level as white children.

I must admit that I cannot fault Bush's rhetoric when he says: "No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and darkness of self-doubt." Nor can I quarrel with the Republican front-runner when he says: "It is a scandal of the first order when the average test scores of African-American and Latino students at age 17 are roughly the same as white 13-year-olds. Whatever the cause, the effect is discrimination."

Bush goes on to suggest that the cause is "failed schools" and says he will cure the problem by taking from such public schools some of the $13 billion that Uncle Sam spends yearly on public education and reallocating it to $1,500 vouchers, and by "allowing someone else -- including churches and synagogues and community groups -- to serve our children in a better fashion."

I would be applauding Bush if he had said, "That gap in test scores is in large measure a reflection of generations of Jim Crow in public schooling. And of current Jim Crow in housing. And current racism in employment and all the other things that create family backgrounds that are not conducive to children learning and scoring high on standardized tests.

"Ever since the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools, those favoring separation and unfairness have prevailed. When I become president, we are going to equalize spending in public school districts, and we are going to end the racism by allowing any child to go to any public school in his state. That way, African-American and Hispanic kids will begin to have a fair chance."

But Bush didn't say that, and I don't think he ever will. Because he's crying crocodile tears about the plight of poor kids and "low expectations."

I don't blame Bush exclusively for this sudden assault on "failed" public schools. President Clinton fell into that same trap some months ago. And I don't expect any real change away from a public school system on which more than 90 percent of the nation's children must depend, no matter how much it is weakened by vouchers. Poor parents can't find a private school that charges only $1,500 a year.

But I do pray that Bush and other Americans will understand that schools "fail" for reasons far beyond the things Bush mentioned. If you locate a school where the student body is certain to be overwhelmingly minority and poor, with parents who lack good educations; if you staff that school with the only teachers willing to work in such an "unsafe" or "unprestigious" environment; if you fund that school so stingily that it lacks books, science lab equipment, computers and advanced placement classes; and if politicians are constantly assailing that school, you will turn out kids who don't read and write or handle math problems in a satisfactory way. Such a school will fail!

The tragic truth is that we have many such public schools in America, and they won't get much better until this country ends the kinds of discrimination that Bush is not talking about.

In fact, I know that what he is saying will sound marvelous to some blacks and Hispanics, who are motivated only by their desire to give their children the best in education. But they are being played for suckers. In truth, Bush's ill-considered, almost-demagogic rhetoric in support of this right-wing education agenda simply scares the hell out of me.

North America Syndicate

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