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'A Test of Our Progress ...'

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The case for an urban Marshall Plan

It is said that hope is the memory of the future. But this month's self-congratulations over America's long-ago generosity in bailing out war-torn Europe and over federal budget negotiators' success in balancing the national checkbook show just how far we have allowed the country's hopes to fade for its urban schoolchildren, who in a very real sense are America's future.

America's good deeds on behalf of Europe at the end of World War II were worth the recent fanfare. Nearly all agree that the U.S. actions were one of humanity's grand gestures. Fifty years ago this month, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed that the United States help finance Europe's recovery. General Marshall and President Truman rallied Americans with a vigorous campaign and persuaded an initially skeptical Congress to allocate $13 billion--today's equivalent of $88.2 billion--to rebuilding the cities in 15 European countries.

But that was hardly the end, despite formal closure of the program in 1951. America spent untold billions--maybe trillions--afterwards protecting its initial investment by waging and winning the Cold War. Marshall's plan was worth doing. Between 1947 and 1951, Europe's gross national product increased by more than 32 percent, while industrial production increased by 40 percent and agricultural production increased by 11 percent over prewar levels. The payoff was increased cooperation between the United States and Europe, a tremendous growth in trade, an expansion of U.S. influence, and the strengthening of democracy in Europe.

Yet, the plan and the subsequent Cold War came at a price to the United States. We delayed doing for our own cities, their schools, and children what we had done for Europe's. America left its own urban public schools, in particular, immiserated by the domestic sacrifices it had to make during the Cold War. Now, in an ironic twist of circumstance, America often compares the achievement of its own urban children unfavorably with that of almost every European country we helped. Predictably, urban children cannot meet world-class standards in Third World facilities.

While we were remembering the generosity of the previous generation toward Europe, we were not acting very generously toward the next generation of Americans--our own children. White House and congressional budget negotiators were reaching accord on a national spending plan that assumed $225 billion in new revenues from a healthy economy; gave $85 billion of it away to the relatively well-off in reduced capital gains and various inheritance taxes; then tagged funding for poor and disabled elementary and secondary schools as "unprotected" and eliminated the meager funding proposed to repair and renovate some of America's poorest urban school buildings.

Ironically, a new memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt was being dedicated at the same time on whose walls resonate these words: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."

Urban schools acting alone cannot solve the problems of crumbling infrastructure, nor should they bear the sole responsibility for the consequences of the nation's failure to act.

President Clinton worked hard at the recent Philadelphia summit on volunteerism to muster the same spirit of national mobilization, but the budget deal struck last month demonstrated just how far the nation's ability to meet Roosevelt's test has diminished--at least for inner-city and poor rural children trapped in schools literally falling apart.

Advocating volunteer service is a worthy undertaking, of course, but common sense would tell every American that rebuilding America's schools can never be done by volunteers alone; and a budget deal that omits all money to help do so reflects a perverted sense of national priorities. A $7 trillion economy whose stock market regularly sets record highs, whose unemployment and interest rates fall to new lows, and whose deficits are shrinking can accommodate a greater effort. It is in good economies, in fact, like this one, when we can afford such efforts most.

America needs a new Marshall Plan. And it is not for Eastern Europe. This time it is for our own urban public schools. The reasons for doing so now are the same as then: It is morally right, economically beneficial, and politically necessary.

Few people can deny the needs. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that there are some $112 billion worth of school infrastructure needs, with the condition of urban school buildings being particularly deplorable. Unfortunately, the response from political leaders often has been to demand that urban schools better manage their own starvation. The United States never required that of Europe.

The United States can no longer maintain that education is just a local responsibility. It is the responsibility of all citizens, all leaders, and all levels of government. Urban schools acting alone cannot solve the problems of crumbling infrastructure, nor should they bear the sole responsibility for the consequences of the nation's failure to act.

The benefits of acting now are every bit as powerful to America as the initial Marshall Plan was. Renovating inner-city school buildings provides jobs, boosts local economies, revitalizes blighted urban areas, improves the working environment of teachers and staff, and, most of all, allows our children to learn in a safe, healthy, and pleasant atmosphere that tells them they are worth something. And like the initial Marshall Plan, it lays the groundwork for peace, economic prosperity for all citizens, and the demise of injustice.

The truth is that America has deferred the hopes and futures of urban schoolchildren long enough. It is time for America to do for Boston what it did for Berlin, for Detroit what it did for Dresden, for Fresno what it did for Frankfurt. Surely it is time for America to test its progress by whether we have provided enough for those inner-city schoolchildren who have too little. Surely it is time for a Marshall Plan for America's urban public schools.

Michael Casserly is the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which is located in Washington.

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