Discouragement and deep fears for the future are felt afterreading the 245-page ''report card'' on school progress, issued by President Bush and the 50 state governors.
This first of 10 reports to be issued, fulfilling the pledge of the celebrated Charlottesville, Va., education ''summit'' two years ago, is filled with ''Fs'' and ''incompletes.''
Worse, not a scintilla of evidence is found in the report -- or anywhere else -- that education will be in any way better in 1994 or 1997, or even the target year of 2000.
That the political system is willing to talk about goals is positive -- by 2000 having all children ''ready to learn,'' 90-percent high-school completion, American students first in the world in math and science and schools that are safe, disciplined and drug-free.
It's a welcome change to set clear goals and then work toward them -- even if there's no clear program to achieve them; even if the president and governors who made them will be out of office by 2000 when the final report card is calculated.
But is any of this to be taken seriously? Take the pledge of having all kids ready for school by 2000. This is perhaps the most critical goal -- if it's not reached, notes Washington Gov. Booth Gardner, all others will be beyond our reach, too.
Pre-school education is the most important building block. Yet the Bush administration still claims the federal government doesn't have enough money to finance Head Start for all eligible 4-year-olds (not to mention 3-year-olds and intensive family outreach). Granted, federal Head Start funding is rising somewhat. Still, it's disingenuous to claim we can't open up Head Start, immediately, for all kids.
The report card notes that 75 percent of 3-to-5 year olds from families with incomes of $75,000 or more are enrolled in pre-school. Why? Middle-class people grasp the benefit, and they can afford it.
But what of families with $30,000 total income or less? Only 40 percent can send their kids to pre-school, Head Start included.
The pre-school disparity underscores the corrosively unequal two-class society we are building -- while other advanced countries provide pre-school for every child.
What of the goal that students leave grades four, eight and 12 with ''demonstrated competency'' in English, math, science, history and geography? Only the dismal math figures are available: less than one in five kids is ''competent.''
Or consider the goal of total adult literacy by 2000. The report card found just 13 percent of us can synthesize the main argument from a long newspaper article (small wonder circulation keeps dropping). Only 14 percent can figure a restaurant tip based on a percentage.
Those figures, said Colorado's Gov. Roy Romer, prompt ''disbelief.'' They are ''very sobering.''
And the report turns chilling when it tells you that, despite the promise of a safe school environment, 13 percent of high school seniors were threatened with weapons last year and 20 percent of black students said they'd been injured with a weapon.
What lies ahead is probably not total despair. Travel the country and you hear countless stories of efforts to reform school governance, bring new teaching methods into classrooms, inspire kids with such tools as interactive video.
Yet against the massive inertia of an entrenched educational system, mounting poverty and family dissolution, is there any chance of making measurable overall progress?
A new secretary of education, Lamar Alexander, offers ''America 2000'' reforms centered on the interesting idea of school choice -- likely a good idea, even if many choice advocates note choice is just a single chink in the mosaic of required school change and reform.
But the feds, even in the post-Cold War world, say they have no more money for education. The state governments have spent 1991 chipping away at their aid to local education. And across America you can find thousands of trailer schools in the suburbs and crumbling inner-city schools.
Maybe ''money alone'' won't improve education results. But without it, there's no chance at all. There are lots of scapegoats: bloated school bureaucracies, burned-out teachers, politicized school boards.
Yet when all's said and done, the villains are probably us. We let ''professionals'' tell us to get out of the way, they know how to teach kids, we don't. We stopped reading to our kids when they were young. We let their young minds absorb thousands of hours of stupefying television. From BMWs to jet skis to Rolexes, we conveyed the message, ''Personal possession comes first.''
And we decided we could let millions of kids grow up in poverty and not pay the frightening social price. Ronald Reagan and George Bush didn't force us to make that decision; we Americans made it in thousands of elections over the past generation. And we keep on making it.
Now the bill is starting to come due. This report card, year by year, will show us how immense it is.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.