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A more practical education reform

Sandra Feldman, head of the American Federation of Teachers, has called for a national commitment to high-quality preschooling for all children. It is an ambitious _ and costly _ proposal. It might also be described as self-serving, since it implies that the school failure that has so many of us talking about vouchers and school choice is not the fault of public school teachers _ that the failure happens much earlier.

But listen to the proposal. It includes universal preschool, built on Head Start, for 3- and 4-year-olds, full-day kindergarten for all youngsters, extended-day and extended-year schooling for poor children and special programs to "accelerate and sustain" the gains that poor children already are making.

The last two items are inspired by a Johns Hopkins University study that found poor and middle-class children making comparable gains during the school year, but also found the achievement gap between the two groups growing because poor children lose ground over the summer.

As Feldman explained last week at the AFT's biennial educational conference, "One problem is that poor families cannot pay for educational supports that more advantaged families take for granted, such as tutoring, computers, trips and summer camps. It is this brutal consequence _ and not our much-maligned schools _ that has to be addressed as a major cause of the achievement gap."

She would pay for the proposed new programs out of expanded federal Title I funding and, in the case of the preschool initiative, through a scheme that would combine federal, state and local funding with family contributions on an ability-to-pay basis. Children from the poorest families would pay nothing.

Is all this just an elaborate distraction from the debate over vouchers? I don't think so. Vouchers are to underachieving public schools what foster care is to troubled families. That is, vouchers can rescue some children from some bad academic situations, and that's good. Feldman's proposal would address those bad academic situations directly, and that's better.

Will her proposal be taken seriously? I doubt it, and not because of serious disagreement with her analysis. We know that many of the schools we call bad are schools that are struggling with children who come to school unready for school learning. We know that parental involvement (which one element of Feldman's proposal addresses) makes a huge difference _ and that middle-class parents tend to be more involved than poor parents who may themselves have been failures at school. We know about the persistent gap not only in test scores but also in access to computers and non-school learning opportunities.

So what would keep us from giving these ideas full consideration and eventually translating them into appropriate legislation?

The toughest barrier, I suspect, is the thing that poisons so much of our discussion about the disparities among various groups of Americans: our insistence on making every shortfall, every limitation, every disparate outcome somebody's fault. We've made accusation a substitute for action, with two unfortunate results. First, the accusers spend more time in proving their case than in changing it, and, second, the accused either devote resources to defending themselves that might have been devoted to changing things _ or else they simply skulk off the stage.

But suppose we could kick this debilitating habit. Suppose we could get beyond our search for villains and look for ways to work together to fix things we all know need fixing.

Suppose, in short, we could learn to look at our children _ all our children _ as vital resources for America's future. Suppose we allowed ourselves to understand that America cannot afford to waste the potential of any significant segment of our society. Suppose we learned to view our disadvantaged children not as victims but as important national resources. Wouldn't we want to make certain that they grow up smart and healthy and happy and ready to contribute?

And wouldn't Sandra Feldman's ambitious proposal start to look a lot more practical?

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group

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