• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

PHILADELPHIA — George and Laura Bush honestly seem to think the
federal government has a proper and productive role in educating
America’s children.

That was the message of Day 1 at the Republican National Convention:
If only our priorities were straight; if only the federal government
gave children more choices; if only Washington spent more money in
certain areas; if only the federal government mandated academic testing.

If only the “compassionate conservatives” could have a chance.

Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t think it will make a bit of difference
to the millions of urban school children currently institutionalized in
government lockups that represent better training for the penitentiary
than for a productive life.

Back in June 1987, philanthropist George Weiss made a promise to 112
sixth graders — all minority and poor — at Belmont Elementary School
in West Philadelphia. The program, “Say Yes to Education,” would
underwrite the college educations of those kids with only one provision
– they must get their diplomas by the summer of 2000.

The clock has expired on this little experiment. And the tally should
serve as a wakeup call to all those who believe money is the answer to
America’s educational crisis.

Of the 112 students offered this dream 13 years ago:

  • 15 received bachelor’s degrees;

  • seven received two-year degrees;

  • 10 received trade-school certificates;

  • 40 dropped out before finishing high school;

  • six died, including one last month in a gunfight;

  • 35 were adjudicated as delinquent;

  • 20 were incarcerated as adults;

  • of the 45 girls in the group, 26 became mothers before age 18;

This dismal record is actually being praised in some quarters.
But think about it. These kids were offered a free ride through the
college of their choice. The offer was made while they were still young
enough to seize the opportunity. Yet, precious few took advantage. Far
more kids chose crime than education.

There’s another sad chapter to this experiment.

The kids and the families offered this $6 million prize have tried
desperately to coax Weiss and those administering the program into
offering even more freebies.

A review panel has been established to study the many pleas coming in
from former students for more financial help. The requests include help
with rent, loans to buy video equipment and extensions on the education
money.

What is the lesson to be learned from this program? Right here in the
city where the Republicans are meeting and wearing funny hats is a
compelling story that suggests even a well-run local program — with
plenty of follow-up and tender-loving care — cannot motivate children
to learn and seize educational opportunities primarily with economic
incentives.

If Weiss couldn’t make a local program like this work, is there
anyone out there who truly believes the federal government could do
better with programs in tens of thousands of other cities across the
country?

Yeah, I have bad news for George and Laura Bush. Your plans to make
more federal intervention in education the focal point of your political
campaign may work politically.

“We wanted to teach our children what our parents had taught us …
that reading is entertaining and interesting and important,” Laura Bush
explained Monday night. “And one of the major reasons George is running
for president is to make sure every child in America has that same
opportunity. That’s why he’s proposed a 5 billion dollar Reading First
initiative with a great American purpose … to make sure every child
in every neighborhood learns to read at grade level by third grade.”

That’s great. It sounds warm and fuzzy — and I guess that’s what
“compassionate conservatism” is all about. But it will never work as
practical policy. All the good intentions in the world won’t reverse a
hundred years of corruption in our government schools. If the Weiss
experiment proves anything, it’s that throwing money at problems is not
the answer.

It’s dangerous that the wannabe first couple really think they can
tinker with the centralized education bureaucracy in Washington, spend a
little more money on a nice-sounding program and somehow improve the
educational fortunes of millions of kids in America. That is not only
wrong-headed, it misses the point that there simply are no
constitutional grounds for the U.S. government to be meddling in
education in the first place.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.