My colleague George Will dismissed with a single sentence the campaign waged by George Bush in Iowa: ''Bush has run a semi-incumbent's campaign, stressing a bland, safe issue, education, that is essentially a responsibility of local governments.''
Ineligible to vote in the Iowa caucus, I am not aware of the line taken by Bush while campaigning there. And of course Will is correct that education is primarily a local issue. But he is quite incorrect in suggesting that the education problem is less than a national concern. For that reason, it is a proper subject for the bully pulpit.
What should be done is both obvious and, for a politician, close to unutterable. The voucher system -- which would permit parents to send their children to a school of their choice -- is explosively opposed by the largest and possibly most influential lobby in the United States, the National Education Association. To say this is to say less than that a presidential candidate cannot win without the NEA's support. It lobbied strenuously for Walter Mondale, and vouchsafed him Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Still, one does not lightly pick a fight with an organization that represents 1.9 million teachers.
Everyone knows, from the publication of choice specimens of general illiteracy (my favorite: one-fourth of college seniors in Dallas do not know the name of the country to the south), the gravity of the problem, but the will to overcome creeping illiteracy is insufficient.
No, that is to put the matter incorrectly. There are mothers and fathers who deprive themselves of much that is associated with the good life in order to finance their children's education in better schools than those public schools they would be required to patronize if they took their marching orders from the public school system. We need to deplore the plight of families who simply do not have the resources to do this.
There is no better example than New York City. Here a small group of volunteers headed by Wall Streeter Peter Flanigan organized a program, The Student/Sponsor Partnership (P.O. Box 1700, Cathedral Hill Station, New York, N.Y. 10025), so simple in conception that any political candidate could tell its story in a minute's television time. For $1,600, a sponsor ''adopts'' a student in a single-parent household and endows him with a scholarship to Cardinal Hayes High School (boys) and St. Michael's Academy or Cathedral High School (girls).
The statistics reveal that 85 percent of the graduates of the three Catholic schools will go on to college. Fewer than 20 percent of the graduates of surrounding high schools will get higher education. And the per capita cost of the public school is more than $3,000. Yet on the day those scholarship children (they are 95 percent black or Hispanic) step into the parochial schools, they are no smarter, and no wiser, than their contemporaries doomed to the general disorder of the typical public school. The distinguishing feature (in New York) is classroom discipline plus workload. Our high school students average three hours of homework per week. The figure in Japan is 15 hours.
The analytical rule is that you cannot effect something without willing the means appropriate to its realization. If you want your child to have a good education, you need the will to realize that end. But the will without the resources is precisely the problem our politicians should be confronting. If George Bush were to declare in favor of a voucher system as a means of enfranchising parents frustrated by an inadequate school system, I do not think that Will would dismiss such a declaration as usurpative for a presidential candidate, and certainly he would not dismiss it as bland.
Bill Honig, the articulate head of public education in California, denounces the voucher system as separatist in its implications. All the best students would go to school A, mediocre students to school B, and the poorer students to School C, to which one replies: It is so, and not resented, in higher education. The best students go to Harvard, the least academically gifted or inclined go to South Newport Junior College. The responsibility of those who preside over School C is to do the best they can with slow students. That indeed should be the concern of the National Education Association: to seek out teachers who with missionary zeal would do what they can for students unwilling or incompetent to learn at a higher level. But whatever the success of C, it shouldn't be at the cost of schools A and B.