The Way We Live Now

GEORGE F. WILL

September 16, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Several public school systems are starting late, forcing parents to seek day care and children to seek alternative sources of free condoms.

For the fifth time in 10 years Chicago's schools opened late, a disruption the teachers union might face less placidly if about half the teachers with school-age children did not send them to private schools. New York's schools will open in a few weeks, maybe. Their problem is asbestos, as explained in a New Yorker magazine editorial that combines proper indignation with obtuseness.

It reports that asbestos tests have been so incompetent and probably fraudulent that ''the results were virtually meaningless.'' Perhaps a third of the tests were fabricated. After 14 years and more than $10 million spent on asbestos abatement, the Board of Education could not tell parents even which schools had been inspected, let alone which were safe.

While the city's 1,069 schools are being reinspected, and made safe from whatever the asbestos risk is (estimates vary widely), children are in private homes, public housing, day-care centers, office buildings and churches throughout the city. Trouble is, the city government says that about 544,000 of the 800,000 buildings in the city contain asbestos. In about 90 percent of those the asbestos is exposed because of the decay of the buildings. The New Yorker wonders whether children might be safer in asbestos-contaminated schools than in other buildings, or in streets where stray -- that's right, stray -- bullets often kill children.

The risk of dying prematurely from asbestosis because of exposure in schools is estimated as about one-third the risk of being struck by lightning, 1,600 times less likely than death in a car accident, 22,000 times less likely than death from smoking. And of course the risk of asbestosis is much less than the risk of being shot or stabbed to death in a New York public school. At a recent protest rally of parents a sign said ''Kids are back in school in Sarajevo.'' Yes, and in Sarajevo the guns are outside the schools.

The New Yorker notes that most asbestos in the schools would not be exposed to the air if the schools were not decaying under the inattention of the Division of School Facilities, which ''has produced spectacular nepotism and a backlog of 44,000 unfilled work orders.'' Perhaps there is that backlog because custodians are kept too busy by contracts requiring them, for example, to mop hallways and classrooms three times a year. A custodian in one of the division's own buildings was especially busy, conducting a second career on school time, from his yacht.

The New Yorker blames the shambles of the public schools partly on the school board, which the magazine angrily says devoted ''most of its energy'' for two years to ''an idiotic wrangle over a few hundred words'' in a proposed curriculum. The magazine demurely and approvingly says that the curriculum ''advocated teaching tolerance for gays.''

But one reason for the public's withdrawal of confidence from the city's public schools is that they seem preoccupied with sexual propaganda -- decreeing when grammar-school children shall read ''Heather Has Two Mommies'' and learn about anal sex -- while buildings crumble, bullets ricochet and incompetent bureaucrats and rapacious unions prosper.

In Washington, where many national politicians are more eager to protect public education from competition than they are to send their children to public schools, the schools opened with a debate about an ''Afrocentrism'' project. Designed by a woman who awarded herself a master's degree from the ''university'' she founded, the Afrocentric teaching she seems to envision is bogus history and pedagogic nonsense that is supposed to produce a ''nurturing environment'' conducive to ''self-esteem'' by challenging the idea that Europe is the source of Western civilization.

The Washington Post asked Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's Department of African-American Studies, to review the woman's materials. He had his senior seminar read them. He says, ''They were speechless. And then they said, 'Please, they cannot be serious.' ''

This episode, and the New York debacle, and the locked doors in Chicago that required a court order to unlock this week, and last week's report on the nation's staggering illiteracy problem, and many other reflections on public education should be on the minds of California voters in November. They will vote on a voucher system that would empower parents to choose between public and private schools.

Public-school lobbyists warn darkly that this might lead to the creation of some private schools that would not meet the high standards of public school systems. Californians should reply, ''Please, they cannot be serious.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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