Better schools? Do the math

Back in his day, George W. Bush's dad wanted to be the "education president." In 1989, President Bush, along with the nation's governors, set forth six educational objectives for the year 2000, correctly recognizing that "fixing" education was our highest domestic priority.

The elder Bush's vision, titled "Goals 2000," contained the following laudable aims: by 2000, all children will start school ready to learn; 90 percent will graduate from high school; all will be competent in English, math, science, foreign languages, civics, economics, the arts, history and geography; the U.S. will be first in math and science; all adults will be literate; and no school will have drugs, violence, firearms or alcohol.

Clearly, we've flunked miserably. Most people will tell you -- especially if they're teachers -- that things have instead gotten a whole lot worse. Predictably, George W.'s campaign blames Bill Clinton and Al Gore for the stagnation and decline; they call it an "education recession." But we all know the problems are deeper and more complicated.

At any rate, this year, George W. Bush also wants to be the "education president," and he has offered us his own set of reforms (wisely, with no time limit): close the "achievement gap" between disadvantaged students and their peers; strengthen early learning; raise standards through "local control, accountability and choice"; give parents more options; improve teacher quality and increase resources; and restore school safety and promote character development.

Translation: The Texas governor wants better test scores for black and Hispanic kids; an overhaul of Head Start; each state to test students every year, with federal money being withdrawn from non-improving schools; an increase in federal tax breaks for education; the testing of teachers for competency; and, not surprisingly, more disciplined schools. (Bush doesn't talk much about vouchers on the stump. When he does, he prefers to call them "opportunity scholarships" or "freedom to choose," because it sounds less threatening.)

To validate his proposals, Bush proudly points to recent successes on his state's standardized tests -- the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills -- taken every year by third to eighth graders. (Tenth graders also take an exam, akin to Florida's FCATs.) And, truthfully, the results do show dramatically improved scores over the last several rounds, especially for minority students.

Of course, Texas still ranks 42nd in the nation in average SAT scores, and 48th in the percentage of high-school students who enroll in, and graduate from, college. Yet if the rising numbers hold steady over the next decade, the Lone Star State may honestly be able to claim its bragging rights.

But Bush is misleading people. While pushing the more conservative aspects of his plan, like standardized testing and fewer school administrators, he is hiding some very important liberal planks from the electorate -- ones that also deserve credit for Texas' progress.

For instance, between 1987 and 1996, Texas increased its number of teachers by 25 percent, while its student population grew by less than 20 percent. Its instructional aides and support staff grew by a third. Class sizes fell and teacher pay went up. Federal aid to education in Texas virtually doubled in every category between 1988 and 1997. In addition, the strong national economy allowed Texas to take in more revenue and thus spend almost 40 percent more per pupil.

One can reasonably argue that vastly higher per-student spending in Texas helped fuel its strong test results. Yet, should he be elected president, Bush plans to increase U.S. education spending only by a modest $14 billion. Al Gore wants to increase spending by $115 billion. If the latter figure sounds too big, consider that here in Orange County alone, there is an immediate need for $2.2 billion just for new school construction and renovations.

In Texas, the people got what they paid for. Tough love and teacher testing will not make change happen if the dollars aren't there. If George W. Bush truly wants to be the education president," he's got to admit that increased spending is part of the solution. He should not attempt to hoodwink the American people into believing that "fixing the schools" doesn't have a high price tag.

In other words, the governor needs to give us all of the facts if he wants a passing grade in November -- and he needs to hand in his math, because right now, he's looking at an "incomplete."