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Many educators across America were surprised to learn recently that Benno C. Schmidt, the president of Yale, had resigned to lead an effort to create a national system of private schools. A few days later, Schmidt's photograph appeared in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, bearing the headline: "America's schools need fundamental, structural change. Not tinkering around the edges."

Schmidt left to join an enterprise called Project Edison, which intends to operate 1,000 private schools across the country soon after the year 2000. Tuitions are to be no higher than what public schools spend on a per-pupil basis, or about $5,500 per child.Project Edison's plan to design new schools from scratch, using the latest in high-tech classroom equipment and educational theory, closely corresponds with the conception for the Bush administration's America 2000 program, which is intended to develop entirely new types of schools, ones that "break the mold." Here in St. Louis, a group of educators and civic leaders has been working for months to design a school for the future and to win one of the 30 national grants to actually create such an institution.

Both projects arise out of what has steadily grown to be the prevailing assumption about public education in America, namely, that it is a failure. Under this widespread belief, which is nearly universal in some segments of society, not only is the quality of education bankrupt, but the system by which education is delivered - the schools, the teachers, the pedagogy - is almost hopeless.

The evidence for these conclusions comes from as far away as Asia and as close as the local school system and our own living rooms. Scarcely a week passes without some new study showing the depressing results of American public education, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, when compared with those in Japan or Taiwan. Who has not read the articles about the vast amounts of time most American kids spend in front of television and the pathetically few minutes occupied in daily reading?

No rational person can assert that there is not an immense amount of fixing to be done. Only a fool would argue against experimentation and research and the incentives necessary for such undertakings. Clearly for many parents and children the specific benefits of a private or church-related education are compelling; and we need such alternatives.

But having said that, I think Americans should stand firmly against any suggestion that because public schools are in trouble, the principle of public education is impeached. For the millions of students who will not be able to afford Project Edison's $5,500 tuition or who cannot get in the handful of schools that break the mold or who are unable or unwilling to go to existing parochial or private schools, the public school system, as we know it, as it exists, is the last, best hope for an education. In a million ways, public schools stand for opportunity, and if we lose sight of that we are truly lost.