The resignation of Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos -- and the education department's since-revised decision to restrict the rewarding of minority scholarships -- has spawned a cottage industry devoted to assessing George Bush's claim to be the "education president."
On Sept. 27 and Sept. 28, 1989, the president convened an education summit with all 50 governors in attendance at the University of Virginia. His purpose was to outline the administration's educational agenda, and the summit was greeted enthusiastically by the governors and their constituencies.
It was fitting that the summit was hosted by the University of Virginia, which was founded and designed by the country's first and foremost education president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was so committed to the role of education in a democratic society that during his second presidential term, from 1805 to 1809, he also served as the first president of the board of trustees of the public schools of the city of Washington.
During the past 25 years, the once proud D.C. public school system has been beset by all the problems that plague schools across the country: high dropout rates (nearly 50 percent in Washington), poor pupil performance, burned-out faculty and administrators, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and so on.
I am a native Washingtonian and graduated from Western High School (now the Duke Ellington School for the Arts) in 1960. Many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of U.S. senators and representatives, diplomats, judges, bankers, builders, military commanders, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Generally parents who sent their children to private schools then did so to make a "social" statement, not because their children couldn't get a good education in the public schools, because they could.
The D.C. public schools then were professional and proficient in their pupil preparation. They saw themselves as extensions of individual black and white households that held academic achievement in high regard. Most students competed among themselves to become members of the honor roll and sought to please their parents and teachers who, in turn, made the sacrifices and provided the support and encouragement so necessary to make educational attainment possible.
I would like to suggest that Bush consider imitating Jefferson and become an active participant in the local school system's leadership, perhaps as an ex-officio member of the D.C. school board. The prestige of the president's presence at board meetings would have a constructive influence on its deliberations and decision-making.
Additionally, members of the White House staff, especially those who live in the city and who have school-age children, should set the national example by investing (through the enrollment of their children) in the D.C. schools. Sadly, Washington's public schools are lacking in students who are the products of successful, achievement-oriented, middle-class households. Thus such parents are not represented at PTA meetings, field trips, school plays, college and career fairs and the other school activities designed to reinforce -- and reward -- scholastic success.
The president does not have to venture beyond our metropolitan community to put his educational principles into practice. He has the opportunity to employ some of his "thousand points of light" to brighten the corner right where he lives. If he should be so energized to assume the challenge of this mission and contribute to restoring the D.C. public school system to its former luster, then he would truly merit the accolade, "education president." Further, such an experience would provide the president with the hands-on reality of the awesome problems in American education and help guide him in his selection of the most appropriate solutions to our most serious national problem.
-- Edward C. Smith is assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and teaches in the School of Education at American University.