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WEB EXCLUSIVE | DERRICK Z. JACKSON

Lots of rhetoric, little money for schools

YOU WOULD think public education is flowering in the desert. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino highlighted his State of the City address by bragging about how Forbes.com said the city had the best public education in the country. He boasted how the city was one of the first in the nation to provide full-day kindergarten for every child. "But let me tell you, even that will not be enough,'' Menino said. "I will direct the Boston Public Schools to provide all 4-year-olds in the city with full-day school within five years. Boston will be the first city in the nation to achieve this.''

Two nights later Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said in his State of the State address that "the failure of our urban schools to prepare our children today for the challenges of tomorrow is the civil rights issue of our generation.'' Romney went on to say he would push for a longer school day, pay raises for teachers, and improve teacher training. He wants to make science a mandatory part of state standardized tests, alongside math and English.

"Education is the investment our generation makes in the future,'' Romney said. "And education reform is the job of the Legislature and the executive. We are ready to do that job.''

In between those two speeches, there was President Bush at a high school in Falls Church, Va. He was accompanied by outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige, incoming Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, and his former-librarian wife, Laura. Bush said he wanted to "enhance'' Pell Grants for low-income college students. He said he wanted to add $1.5 billion to his No Child Left Behind program to impose national testing standards on high school students, to go along with current monitoring of elementary and middle schools.

"We've got money in the budget to help the states implement the tests,'' Bush said. "There should be no excuse saying, 'Well it's an unfunded mandate.' Forget it. It will be funded.''

Really? Tell us it is really so, because so far it has not been so. The same Bush who suddenly tells us that No Child Left Behind will get an additional $1.5 billion is the same president who let the act go underfunded by at least $32 billion since he signed it in his first term, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Bush said he wants to enhance Pell Grants so that a student could receive up to $4,550 by the year 2010. The grant maximum is currently $4,050. This is the same Bush who in 2000 said if he won the White House, he would launch a five-year plan that would raise the Pell Grant maximum to $5100. Bush may lecture students to "aim high in life,'' but so far, he has lowballed them at almost every turn. The Education Department seemed more interested in paying African-American conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to brainwash black people on the empty promises of No Child Left Behind.

Underfunding the mandates at the federal level has meant tremendous pressure on state and local governments, stripping the Romneys and Meninos of the nation of their ability to live up to their own rhetoric. There is no sign that Bush's real priorities, the priorities that make education funding a joke, are changing. They might even be getting worse.

Bush is about to ask Congress for between $80 billion and $100 billion in new funds for his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If approved, that will shoot the costs to this point over $200 billion, a figure once sneered at by the administration in the days they all but promised a quick blitz and early exit. President Johnson proved four decades ago that you cannot conduct a wasteful war and fund social programs at the same time. There is nothing Bush can offer to the contrary, not when he also wants to make his trillion-dollar tax cut permanent.

All of that going on at the top threatens to gut any dreams that Romney or Menino have at the state and local level, where there are problems aplenty with their own rhetoric. No lofty claims about Boston schools can avoid the fact that they have become as resegregated as any system in the country. Romney knows that while science is important, it is crazy to mandate science tests for high school graduation when so many teachers are unqualified to teach it.

If Romney, a Republican, and Menino, a Democrat, really want their visions for education to happen, they should do something quite rare in today's divided politics. They should join forces to demand that Bush deliver on his promises. When Bush declares, "Forget it, it will be funded,'' Romney and Menino should be the first in line to tell Bush not to forget.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com 

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