More Alice Deals? There's a better deal

"I don't like to read," he said, the first time I tutored him.

He did like one TV show, though — "Walker, Texas Ranger." Why not look at Chuck Norris's website? Okay! But I had to spell Chuck for him. Then, Norris. Soon it became clear.

It wasn't that Antoine — not his real name — didn't like to read. At 13, he didn't know how.

You won't find inspiration in Antoine's story. Later, he committed a terrible crime. He will spend a decade in prison. But that came after a six-year odyssey where, determined to catch up, he worked obsessively with tutors: me, my family, and my friends. He didn't just finish high school. He graduated 14th in his class.

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Those six years — despite and because of its devastating aftermath — is what makes the debate about America's "failing schools" so exasperating to me — and especially this summer in Washington.

The concern over why we've fallen behind other countries seems reasonable. How can U.S. students test behind those from 33 countries? Behind Croatia!

But that's not because all American schools fail. It mostly reflects the dismal results by Hispanic/Latino and African-American students — especially African-Americans, whose results in that test would have put them 54th. White kids (15th) and Asian-Americans (4th) do fine. Overall, American white kids finish ahead of Germany and Australia. Not a disaster.

African-American scores are, though. And in Washington, with the biggest white/black achievement gap of any city in the country, you'd think we could find solutions.

We don't. Case in point: the education "platform" from Muriel Bowser, Democrat, and overwhelming favorite to be next mayor.

Most of Bowser's education ideas — her opponent's are no better — involve the usual suspects, impossible to evaluate without detail she doesn't provide: remodeling, charter schools, innovative leaders and additional "resources" for underperforming schools.

But then, there's this: "Alice Deal for All." Every student, Bowser says, should have a school like Alice Deal Middle School.

Alice Deal?

It's good. My kids went there — and to Woodrow Wilson, the high school it feeds. Eighty-eight percent of Deal students score Proficient or Advanced in Reading. At Antoine's? Twenty-one percent.

Deal's scores don't come just from great teachers, though. Deal is in the wealthy, largely white part of DC. Forty-nine percent of its students are white and Asian. Just 21 percent get free or subsidized lunch — the shorthand indicator for family income. Antoine's school? It's one percent white. Ninety-nine percent get the lunches.

Translation. Every D.C. kid could go to a school like Deal or Wilson — if at each school half the kids were white or Asian — and well off. That is fiction disguised as policy.

But Deal-envy explains some of the fierce battling over the new school boundaries proposal District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) unveiled this week. Oh, if only my kid could go to Deal!

Here, both parents and the city miss the point.

The question isn't only where kids go. It's what kids get. And here, DCPS has sent the wrong message.

Take remodeling. Of course some D.C. schools need it. The recently remodeled Deal and Wilson both look terrific: bright bathrooms, a great artificial turf football field, sophisticated theaters and graceful exteriors.

The cost? $225 million for both — including $34 million for an Olympic-size pool.

Sorry, neighbors who love going over to swim laps. That pool's message is this: Washington's priority is the schools for kids who will do well wherever they go — not for struggling kids who can go no place else. No wonder parents want their kids at Deal.

What would really work for those most in need? The kids for whom no classroom activity has worked? Prime among those: the 18 percent of D.C.'s 46,000 school students who test "Below Basic"? That means fourth-graders who don't know whether we measure the weight of apples in pounds or feet.

Here's where Antoine comes in. For seven years he'd been in lots of special programs. Only when he started working one-on-one did he show what he could do.

Instead of frantically redrawing boundaries to figure out where to send kids who need help most — why not create an intense, 10 hours a week tutoring program for the 8,000 "Below Basic" kids — and send the tutors to them?

Tutoring works. Don't rely on my anecdotal evidence. Look at the scholarship, like that by Johns Hopkins University Professor Robert Balfanz. There's a lot more.

Too costly? There are tutoring programs in D.C., but small, uneven and uncoordinated. A serious pilot program could run $40 million a year. But expanding volunteer programs and a federal partnership would drive the cost way down. And we can trim the remodeling. Yes, yes, you can't just shift money from capital to operating budgets. As one of my friends put it, "Administrators'll say, capital projects are amortized. They're multigenerational."

Tutoring programs are multigenerational, too. Governments make choices between capital and operating projects every year. It's why a National Security Agency headquarters gets built, and food stamps cut. With almost $2 billion just in next year's D.C. education operating budget, and federal help, the money's there.

Antoine's made a friend in prison — a kind of tutor. "He's slowly started teaching me things," he writes. "That's how I started reading Malcolm Gladwell." He wants more Malcolm Gladwell books.

I send them. It's small consolation that he who couldn't read 10 years ago reads Malcolm Gladwell in a prison cell. Maybe his new tutor will include something I should have worked on more: values. Tutors should aim beyond reading and math; the research shows they can.

Building a $34-million dollar pool in the rich part of town when seventh-graders elsewhere can't spell Chuck — and fourth-graders think we measure weight in feet? That was wrong.

To create more Alice Deals? That's a pipe dream. We need to create more educated kids. Tutoring, done well, can offer that. That's the deal D.C. needs.

Lehrman is the former White House chief speechwriter to Vice President Gore and has published four novels and the widely used Political Speechwriter's Companion. He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University and writes often about politics. This is his first piece for The Hill.