WASHINGTON. — I am willing to overlook President Bush's transparent photo opportunities where he shows a black schoolboy his American Express card, or reading to schoolgirls. I am willing to ignore the blatant politics of many other things and concede that George Bush really does want to be ''the education president'' and does want to lead a ''revolution'' in American education.
God knows we need a larger, more generous federal approach.
What I am not willing to accept is the George Bush-John Sununu argument that the president can provoke a ''revolution'' while providing no money with which to feed, clothe, arm or otherwise support the soldiers of such a revolution.
Amid a myriad of cliches about how this administration is going to reinvent the American school, I was struck by this one from Mr. Bush himself: ''Dollar bills don't educate students.''
That's a poor third cousin of the cliche that ''guns don't kill.'' Committed teachers with enough dollar bills do educate our children -- beautifully. Guns in the hands of bad people do kill our children -- mercilessly.
Would Mr. Bush tell us that ''dollar bills don't win wars'' after he has thrown some $70 billion at a Persian Gulf problem? Can't he see that anything approaching that kind of commitment of dollars would produce educational success beyond anything he has achieved in the ongoing Middle East war?
I like most of the president's new rhetoric about developing ''new world standards'' for U.S. students in English, math, science, history and geography. Such standards are crucial to our ability to ever again compete globally.
I applaud the call for ''New American Schools,'' with business corporations getting deeply involved in programs to ensure their getting an adequate work force in the 21st century. Corporate America has more to gain than anyone, other than the students who are getting lousy educations.
While I refuse to blame teachers, most of them underpaid, for the current mess in education, I embrace the idea of certifying as teachers people, retired or whatever, who have special skills that they can pass on to our youngsters.
But I am troubled by talk of ''voluntary national exams'' that would tell college admissions officers which person meets a ''national standard'' and is eligible for admission to a good college, or qualified for work in a business enterprise. I say that there can be no meaningful and fair ''national standard'' until we have a meaningful and fair guarantee of educational opportunity.
When the average expenditure per pupil in the public schools of Mississippi is $2,874, and is $5,976 in Massachusetts, the only thing a national test will tell us is what we already know: that a black kid in Belzoni, Miss., is going to score so much lower than almost any kid in Boston that the inclination will be to deny the Mississippi kid admission to college, or to a job as anything other than a semi-slave.
The Bush idea of a ''national test'' against ''national standards'' will never be worth a damn as long as the president and White House Chief of Staff Sununu keep saying it is up to states and local districts to deal with inequalities of opportunities. It is absurd for Mr. Sununu, Mr. Bush, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander or others to pretend that somehow Alabama ($3,197 per year per pupil) can raise taxes and come close to matching New York ($7,663 per pupil).
Until the federal government helps to equalize opportunities for kids, ignoring state borders but requiring that a student in the Mississippi Delta get the same opportunity as a child in a suburb of Jackson, Miss., or Jackson, Mich., it will be a cruel snare and delusion to talk about national standards.
I know that some blacks, Hispanics, poor whites and others salivate over the prospect of getting federal moneys with which to finance their ''parental choice'' to send their children to private and parochial schools. Every parent wants something better for his or her child.
But critics of the Bush ''revolution,'' this writer included, say ''parental choice'' is a cruel trap for the poor families of America. Private and parochial schools will never admit more than a
smidgen of the very best minority and poor children, taking every federal dollar they can. The great mass of kids from city ghettos and rural pockets of poverty will have no ''choice'' but to attend, and probably drop out of, public schools made even worse by the draining away of feeble federal support to private schools.
There is no logical or moral reason, and surely no federal money commitment at this time, to induce me to accept the Bush initiative as a workable ''revolution.''
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.