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Choice, which is emerging as the year's favorite political fad in the phony education reform ploy, is nothing more than a political evasion.

First, let's make a distinction between what parents do and what the government does. Parents have choice. They can move. If they can afford it, they may switch their child to a private school. Many parents have always exercised this kind of choice and are free to keep on exercising it.The question is: Should the government finance their choice, by providing a voucher as President Bush and some conservatives want to do? The answer is, No. The government's commitment to education should begin and end at the public schoolhouse door. The government - and its money - should stay out of private education. Public education is the government's responsibility, not private education.

Frankly, government is not living up to its responsibility to public education. This is not the fault of taxpayers. Public spending on public education stands at its highest point in history. The fault lies with politicians and education bureaucrats who have conspired to drain money out of the classrooms into fancy administrative buildings, oceans of useless reports and data collection systems, and salaries for themselves.

All education takes place in the classroom where teacher and students interact. Therefore all education dollars should be directed at that point of contact. First, adequate salary for the teacher. Second, adequate textbooks and classroom supplies. Third, adequate library. Fourth, adequate building.

These are the basics of education, but more needs doing. Administrators must establish discipline, so teachers do not have to act as police officers. It is absurd for a nuclear superpower to claim that grownups cannot establish and maintain discipline among a group of children and adolescents. It's not done because of politics, bad laws, stupid judicial rulings and lack of willpower, but it can be done.

Instead of creating a smoke and mirrors boondoggle, like President Bush's so-called educational reform, federal and state governments should make an immediate commitment to change whatever needs changing in the way of laws, rules or policies to establish discipline and a safe learning environment in every school in the nation. This doesn't require money. It requires willpower.

A child may live in an unsafe neighborhood or an unsafe home for that matter. That's not public education's responsibility. But once that child sets foot in the schoolyard, safety is public education's responsibility. Schools used to be an oasis for children in rough neighborhoods. We should insist that schools become so again. Schools cannot correct bad neighborhoods or bad homes, but they can often overcome the effects of those things - if teachers are allowed to do their work in a safe, disciplined environment.

Private education is starting to lobby to get its hands in the public till. That only shows you that private educational bureaucrats are no different than public education bureaucrats. Anyway, we should insist that their hands be slapped and not a penny of public money be diverted into private schools no matter under what scheme.

If private education is so great, then it can survive without public subsidy. If it can't, then goodbye.

Teachers know how to teach. Students can learn. Give them both the right environment and the right tools. That's all the reform needed.