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In a misguided attempt to rid themselves of any hint of religious teaching, America's public schools in recent decades have tried to make education "value free." In the process, they have betrayed the very children they were trying to protect.

Recently, a commission of high-ranking figures appointed by the National Association of State Boards of Education and by the American Medical Association studied the role of schools in improving adolescent mental and physical health.What they found was a disaster, a generation of young people plagued by pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, violence and suicide, a generation "less prepared to take their place in society than were their parents." The commission called for expensive medical, psychological and social services in the schools to attack these problems.

But what's needed is a cure that gets at the roots of the problem rather than merely trying to alleviate its symptoms.

A few days ago, an interfaith group of Jewish leaders and Catholic bishops called for a major effort to do precisely that by teaching common moral values in school.

Too often, as the communique noted, children "lack fundamental values - like honesty, integrity, tolerance, loyalty and belief in human worth and dignity." Those kinds of missing values open the door to destructive behavior. The rabbis and bishops want a national effort to implement moral public education in the schools.

Unfortunately, the public schools, afraid of being accused of indoctrinating children with specific religious beliefs, have largely opted out of teaching morals at all - with awful consequences.

Parents need all the help they can get and it should be possible to teach basic moral values apart from the content of a specific faith. Those values are found in the Constitution, much of the world's great literature, and in the lessons of history.

Young people clearly need moral guidance and the teaching of ethics as much as they need reading and writing and arithmetic.

There are those who argue that teaching such values should be reserved for the home and the church. But some children do not have that instruction at home; others do not attend any church. And the pressures to behave in immoral ways push at them from all sides. When the schools opt out, what is left?