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President Bush's TV ads promoting his re-election assure the country that a new era of schools, fueled by "competition," is just around the corner if he remains in the White House.

That's an interesting promise from the president who hasn't been able to wring a single penny from Congress - to this point - for his America 2000 plan.America 2000 was going to pour $1 million into one school in each congressional district around the country, plus a couple per state, to encourage innovation and restructuring. The America 2000 schools were then to create a pattern for progressive changes across the country.

Thousands of communities, including a number in Utah, jumped on the bandwagon, getting constituencies together to devise plans to achieve the president's objectives.

That's not bad. Any exercise in self-analysis and goal-setting is worthwhile, especially if it brings together all those elements interested in education in a particular neighborhood. With or without the assurance of additional money, that should be happening regularly.

But if the America 2000 concept can be accepted as an indicator of how well Bush can promote his educational reforms with Congress, there may be more sauce than substance to them.

If the president's voucher proposals are central to his desire for competition, he's going about it the wrong way. Taxpayers could be paying a bundle for a process that would make the educational playing field more uneven than ever and favor private education to the detriment of the public schools.

The proposal is to give $1,000 each to 500,000 poor children whose public education supposedly isn't doing the job. They could then purchase education in the private sector. That's a $500 million penalty for public education for not measuring up.

Instead of penalizing the system, why not put the same effort into helping it arrive at a point where it COULD measure up? If the president figured he could spend $1 million each on the proposed America 2000 schools, why not assume that the same expenditure on the country's most troubled schools could have a beneficial effect?

Why, on the contrary, should we allow the public system to further deteriorate by siphoning off the middle group of students whose parents are teetering at the point of being able to choose private education? Consider instead a $1,000 contribution for 500,000 poor children in their usual public schools. That could go further toward making those schools competitive with their private counterparts than providing an additional edge for the private schools.

If we want a public system that deals only with those children who are so poor they have no other options, or who are educationally difficult and not desirable to the private schools, this is certainly one way to do it.

There is the very real potential that the federal voucher system could proliferate over time as the demand grows, giving taxpayers a double whammy as they support both public and private systems.

Parents who choose private education argue that they now get the double dose, but that's a choice they make. Taxpayers don't have the same option to decide if they will or won't pay.

I firmly believe in private education as an option for those who want it, but I don't want to subsidize it with my tax dollars. The question of using public money to pay for parochial education, or any of the special "isms" that sometimes motivate private schools, raises red flags in my mind.

In athletics, we go to great lengths to even the competition. Let's do the same for education.

Let's encourage the public schools to compete for excellence within their own league.

Private education is another league entirely.