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A broken promise to children

ONE OF the many lamentable things about this presidential campaign is how the real issues have been obscured in a sea of mud and deception. Exhibit A is education.

President Bush campaigned as an education president and pledged to leave no child behind. His main legacy, however, is a most un-Republican brand of federal mandates on public schools, imposing high-stakes testing but without the funding to deliver the promise of better schools and teachers.

Today happens to be the kickoff of the National Mobilization for Great Public Schools, a campaign organized by a coalition that includes Campaign for America's Future, ACORN, MoveOn, the National Education Association, some 40 groups in all.

At last count, 4,000 teachers and parents had signed up to host house parties to organize an army of parents and others to press for adequate funding to back up the administration's rhetoric. Here are some appalling statistics, courtesy of the Mobilization and other research organizations:

* Headstart is a proven success for low-income preschoolers, but 3 million eligible kids can't participate because there's a $23 billion funding gap.

In next year's budget, the White House actually plans to cut Headstart funds by almost $200 million. Nearly half of all 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in any kind of preschool program, and the United States still lacks universal kindergarten.

* After-school programs are crucial to help working parents and to make sure that kids are in safe learning environments rather than in custodial daycare or on the street. The administration promised to deliver after-school programs for 1.4 million kids, then short-changed them by a billion dollars.

* Next year's budget would provide $11 billion less than what was promised for children with disabilities.

* The administation proposes a $7.2 billion shortfall in education aid to kids in poor communities and no money for school renovation and modernization even though the cost of deferred repairs and construction now exceeds $300 billion. One school in three uses trailers.

* The United States faces the greatest wave of teacher retirements ever, but the administration is actually cutting funds for teacher training and for recruitment and mentoring programs.

* The administration also short-changes higher education. In 1975-76, a Pell grant covered 84 percent of tuition at a typical public university. Today, after three decades of rising costs, it covers just 39 percent. As recently as the early 1990s, grants covered a majority of costs to low- and middle-income students. Today it's mostly loans.

And while the administration fails to offer adequate funding, what does it emphasize? Over the objections of its own panel, the admistration is going forward with a plan to require Headstart to test children as young as 3 and 4, even though virtually every reputable expert concludes that very young children cannot be reliably tested and that testing results are a nonsensical way to evaluate the quality of Headstart programs.

The administration is also pressing ahead with voucher schemes even though the preponderance of research suggests that voucher schools do no better with comparable kids than public schools and drain public systems of resources.

For half the cost of the Iraq War or for less than half the cost of the Bush tax cuts, we could keep faith with America's schools and educate the next generation of at-risk kids. We could provide high-quality early education -- or paid parental leave -- so mothers (as well as fathers) forced to work full time would know that their children were safe and learning.

Even if you don't have children, you must know that the productivity of the next generation will determine whether the United States will have a competitive economy that can cover the costs of Medicare and Social Security.

Isn't this the sort of thing Americans should be debating? Shouldn't Bush be held accountable for the chasms between his rhetoric and his program (with far deeper cuts expected in a second term)? Who is the real flip-flopper here? Who is the flop as president?

Finally, belatedly, John Kerry delivered a forceful speech on what's wrong with Bush's Iraq policy. Now he needs to do the same thing, one cogent speech at a time, to expose each aspect of Bush's abysmal domestic program.

Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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