IN 2002, President Bush said the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools was "the right decision." He said we "can't have two systems, one for African-Americans and one for whites." Last month, Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, said in a speech at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government: "Such division was wrong in 1954, and it is wrong today. It is immoral. It is unjust."
The proclamations made by Bush and Paige are eerie in the dwindling of their meaning -- assuming that there was much meaning to start with. The words shrink right back into 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed: "It is now my opportunity to help every Negro and every American citizen have an equal opportunity. . . . I do not want to see all those hopes and all those dreams of so many people for so many years now drowned in the wasteful ravages of cruel wars."
Johnson said that in a news conference telling Americans why we were in Vietnam. The war escalated out of control, and Johnson's Great Society drowned in its waste. Nearly four decades later, Bush's immoral invasion of Iraq, justified by nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and newly debauched by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, has spiraled out of control in terms of lives, financial expense, and moral cost. The waste abroad once again betrays the wasted opportunity at home.
Congress has so far authorized $166 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The aimless mission in Iraq is gobbling up the vast majority of resources, with 135,000 American troops there compared with the 14,000 in Afghanistan, where we still are looking for Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Things are going so badly that even Bush's fellow Republicans admit that astronomical financial sums are needed for the Iraq operation. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said recently, "Every ground squirrel in this country knows that it's going to be $50 to $75 billion in additional money required to sustain us in Iraq for this year."
The cost of Iraq -- $4.7 billion a month, according to the Pentagon -- already almost matches the $5 billion a month average spent on Vietnam in today's dollars. If Bush gets another $75 billion this year, he would close in on the halfway point of Vietnam spending in just a year and a half.
The diversion of resources and the obvious loss of opportunity for America's public school children is almost incalculable. Assuming even the conservative guess by Hagel of $50 billion in additional funds, that would make $216 billion in war appropriations. That sum is:
Nearly four times the budget of the Education Department.
Nearly double what the General Accounting Office said in the mid-1990s was needed to repair the nation's schools.
24 times what it would cost to fully fund the congressional appropriation for No Child Left Behind.
43 times what it would cost to enroll the remaining 40 percent of eligible preschoolers still not in Head Start.
848 times the cost of the Even Start family literacy program, which Bush proposed to kill.
1,800 times the appropriation for the national math-science partnership between high schools and colleges, which Bush proposed to kill.
6,352 times the cost of a program to help pay secondary school counselors, which Bush proposed to kill.
12,000 times the cost of a national writing project, which Bush proposed to kill.
19,600 times the cost of a program to support "gifted and talented" students, which Bush proposed to kill.
In a speech two years ago to mark the creation of a commission to prepare for the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Paige declared that "education is a civil right. To deny that right is to cancel all other rights." In February, Paige said: "No Child Left Behind is the logical next step to the Brown decision. The best way to eliminate racial inequality in our society is to close the achievement gap."
Bush's chronic underfunding of the one program that gave him the biggest chance of showing he cared about inequality betrays the pomp as merely pompous. Nearly four decades ago, Lyndon Johnson said in a State of the Union address: "I recommend that you provide the resources to carry forward, with full vigor, the great health and education programs that you enacted into law last year." Meanwhile the real resources were going to Vietnam. Today another president is killing education programs while his full vigor is dedicated to a quixotic conquest that is losing credibility even faster than Vietnam. Undergoing a silent torture are America's public school children. With every dollar that goes to Iraq, their civil rights are canceled.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.